Olive Ann Beech

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'First Lady of Aviation' Made Mark Beyond The Corporate Boardroom

Olive Ann Beech -- the "first lady of aviation," philanthropist and patron of the arts -- died in her sleep Tuesday morning at her Eastborough home. She was 89.

Mrs. Beech, co-founder of Beech Aircraft Corp. and its chief executive for three decades, had been in fragile health for the past few years. She was Beech's chairman emeritus at the time of her death.

While she was not an engineer, aircraft designer or even pilot, she co-founded a company that grew into a world leader in building private, commercial and military aircraft and components for America's space programs.

She also served as a patron of the arts and helped raise -- and donated herself -- millions of dollars in support of the arts in Wichita.

While her name will live on through the museums, arts organizations and social service programs she aided, internationally she will be remembered for guiding Beech Aircraft Corp. through the 30 most-productive years of its history.

For decades she had been referred to as the "first lady of aviation." No one else in the history of aviation could have fit that description. She was the recipient of dozens of awards and honors from colleges and universities, aviation and business organizations. She drew praise from business leaders for her intelligence, from competitors for her judgment and from workers for her fairness.

The funeral is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in downtown Wichita. Mrs. Beech's survivors include two daughters, Suzanne Beech Warner of Boulder City, Nev., and Mary Lynn Oliver of Wichita, and three grandchildren.

Memorials have been established with First United Methodist Church, Soroptimists International of Wichita and the Wichita Center for the Arts. Downing & Lahey Mortuary is in charge of arrangements.

While Mrs. Beech became a legend in the aviation industry, she had little interest in talking publicly about her accomplishments from the day she left active management of Beech in 1982 until she died.

"I believe my biography sums up about all I'll ever have to say on my life," she said earlier this year, gently brushing off a reporter's interview request for the umpteenth time.

"When flying was first popular, I was happy to talk about it any time, and I tried to say everything I could about the business," she said. "Once I retired in 1982, I thought I could get by without having to talk about it anymore.

"But it's something the way people want you to talk about this aviation business again and again."

But her accomplishments at Beech and in the years after say volumes that her company biography doesn't.

Aviation industry voices unanimously credit Mrs. Beech with the survival and growth of the company she co-founded with her husband, Walter, in 1932, along with the development of the general aviation industry in which Beech flourished.

"Olive Ann Beech was highly respected, not only as a pioneer in aviation, but also as a leader in business," said Max Bleck, president of Raytheon and chairman and chief executive officer of Beech.

Said Russ Meyer, chairman and chief executive officer of Cessna Aircraft Co.: "Mrs. Beech was a very lovely person with great strength, committed very much to the industry, the community and her family.

"Personalities like Mrs. Beech come along very rarely in any industry."

Said Jack Braly, the current president of Beech: "Her life was a celebration of the American dream. We are saddened by her passing, but her name will live on as long as there are Beech airplanes and people with the desire to own and fly them."

Mrs. Beech was born Sept. 25, 1903, in Waverly in northeast Kansas. She started earning notice for her monetary skills when she was 7 -- young Olive Ann Mellor had her own checking account, unusual for any child in 1910, let alone a young girl. By the time she was 11, she had responsibility for her family's household finances. She later went on to study business.

By the time Mrs. Beech ended her 58 years' work, her financial skills were as much legend as the Beechcraft marquee.

Despite the gambles Beech took from the early days of the company during the Depression to the end of her tenure, she always made her decisions based on her own innate financial sense balanced against her knowledge of product development, manufacturing and marketing.

She became well-known nationwide and even worldwide, but she did not think of herself as a pioneer.

"I am not the adventurous woman," said Mrs. Beech in a rare interview in 1985.

But with her husband, she was adventurous enough to start an airplane company in the midst of the Depression, nurture it, and wrangle millions in financing to expand into military production at the outbreak of World War II.

Mrs. Beech's involvement in aviation came at age 21, in 1924 when she became secretary and bookkeeper for the Travel Air Manufacturing Co. It continued in her role as Beech Aircraft Corp.'s founding corporate secretary, then its president, and ultimately as its chairman.

"It was her financial acumen that made Beech what it grew to be," said John Zimmerman, president of Wichita-based Aviation Data Inc., who had known Mrs. Beech for decades.

She was the last savior of the founding pioneers of Travel Air -- Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman. Cessna, who later founded Cessna Aircraft Co., and Stearman, who started a company that became Boeing, had both credited Mrs. Beech's financial skill for the success of Travel Air.

And her fiscal sense guided Beech through the tough years of World War II, when she stood in for Walter during a year-long illness, and through the introduction of four trend-setting Beech models -- the Staggerwing, the Model 18, the Bonanza, and the King Air business turboprops -- and the company's merger with Raytheon Corp. in 1980.

"She was really the glue that made Travel Air and Beech the leaders they were in the world of civil aviation," Zimmeran said. "Her passing signals the end of an era."

In an interview for a company history of Travel Air, she told author Edward Phillips how Clyde Cessna had hired her for the job and then taunted Walter Beech when the pioneering air racer was smitten by her. And she once joked about the "dictionary" created for her -- a sketch on a napkin labeling various airplane parts so she could accurately describe them in company letters she wrote.

"She will get a laugh out of that nearly 60 years later," Phillips said Tuesday.

Two momentous events happened to Olive Ann and Walter in 1930: They married and then moved from Wichita as Walter took a job with Curtiss-Wright Corp., which had bought Travel Air. Curtiss-Wright was then among the largest aviation conglomerates in the business.

Two years later, the Beeches returned to Wichita to manufacture Walter's ground-breaking Model 17 Staggerwing biplane even as the Depression enveloped the country. "She had the touch in the office, handling the finances and the orders and the billings," Phillips said. "So when she and Walter started Beech in 1932, it was a foregone conclusion that it would be up to her to run the administrative side of the company."

Although she was among general aviation's top executives for five decades, she never learned to fly. A succession of would-be teachers -- starting with Walter Beech in the days of Travel Air -- dampered her interest in being a pilot. "Their idea of instruction was to take me up and then stunt the airplane," she once explained. "In those days, you know, a plane was no good unless it flew upside down."

But she did log thousands of hours in airplanes, starting with her first flight in an open-cockpit Travel Air piloted by Mr. Beech. He flew her to New York, then to the National Air Races where he was competing.

According to Mrs. Beech, you didn't need to be a pilot to appreciate the advantages of private flying. "I left the control of the airplanes up to others and exercised control of the company a I saw its needs," she said last year while declining in invitation to talk more about her career.

And eventually, she toured the world in Beech aircraft that bore her personal registration number: N925B, taken from her birth date, Sept. 25, 1903. Her planes always bore a touch of her favorite color, powder blue, and often bore paint schemes that incorporated that blue with red and white.

Mrs. Beech chafed at suggestions that paternalism was behind her success in aviation. And at a time when few women were flying, she promoted female fliers.

In 1936, when Walter Beech wanted to showcase the Staggerwing in the coast-to-coast portion of the National Air Races, Olive Ann Beech suggested that the effort would gain more attention if a woman flew the plane. "I decided it would be more spectacular," she said in a 1985 interview.

Native Wichitan Louise Thaden flew for Beech and won the race between Bendix, N. J., and Los Angeles, fishing 30 minutes ahead of her closest rival.

It was only one early touch of the influence Olive Ann Beech would wield with increasing effectiveness during the next five decades.

Bill Robinson left Beech Aircraft in 1985 after 15 years in public relations with the company, and spoke Tuesday with authority about her influence during his tenure. "At one time, she insisted Beech run a full schedule of advertisements in women's magazines," he said. "But you never made a mistake of thinking because she was a woman that she was a pushover -- she controlled that company.

"You needed to have a rapport with her if you wanted to survive her ire should things go badly. She was the decision maker, although if she had confidence in you, she would turn things over to you and let you run with it."

When Walter Beech died of a heart attack in 1950, Mrs. Beech took control and guided the expansion of Beech for another three decades.

She is credited with making the final decision on every model and marketing campaign from that point on. In one case, a decision she made resulted in the introduction of an entirely new line of aircraft -- the King Air line of business turboprops. The Army had experimented with a Queen Air airframe, modified with then-new PT6 turboprop engines being manufactured by Pratt & Whitney.

"Olive Ann should be credited fully with analyzing the risk and deciding to go ahead with the King Air back in 1963," Phillips explained. "It was a decision that has had a monumental influence on business aviation to this day."

Beech Aircraft continues to manufacture a version of the original King Air 90, along with three larger versions.

Olive Ann Beech always maintained that she fully enjoyed her work and her life. "I was never forced to do anything I didn't want to do on my own," she said in 1992.

She also was reluctant to accept credit -- "or blame, for that matter," she said last year.

Robert Martin, an attorney who represented the company, recalled that employees were under strict instructions to send Mrs. Beech any written complaint about one of the company's aircraft.

Mrs. Beech also insisted that a response be sent within days, said Martin, a former director of the company.

Martin described her as a very bright woman who understood the business and where it was going -- a woman who was proud of the company's strong balance sheet. The company prospered under her management.

Mrs. Beech was a formal and courteous woman, Martin said. At business meetings, she addressed men using the title "Mister."

"She treated them with absolute respect and kindness, and they treated her the same way," Martin said.

He recalled a story that Mrs. Beech had told him about flying back from Kansas City with her husband in a plane with no heater. Walter Beech -- whom she called "Papa" -- landed in a pasture in the Flint Hills, pulled up along a hedgerow, and built a fire.

The two warmed themselves and then continued on to Wichita.

Tributes to Mrs. Beech and her accomplishments came Tuesday from politicians, aviation and business officials, and labor.

Mayor Elma Broadfoot praised her contributions to the history of Wichita and the history of women.

"It was not a period of time that women were easily accepted," Broadfoot said. "And I would think that she would have had to be of strong spirit and heart to have persevered against some of that."

U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum said of her, "Olive Ann Beech was a real pioneer in aviation who did much to make Wichita a world leader in aircraft manufacturing.

"Her business skill, discipline and commitment to quality shaped both Beech Aircraft and aviation in many ways, and in addition, her many acts of service to both Wichita and Kansas have helped make us a better and stronger community."

Jordan Haines, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Fourth Financial Corp., said Mrs. Beech was impervious to any hostility she might have encountered because she was a woman in business.

"Gender was not important to her," he said.

Mrs. Beech served for many years on the bank's board. She was a shy woman who did not speak at annual meetings, Haines said. "She certainly did not like the lectern," Haines said. "She did not seek the podium."

He said that Mrs. Beech was a conservative executive who led Beech Aircraft through others.

Her example as a business figure made a strong impression on many a young Wichita woman.

Pat Lehman still remembers the first time she saw Mrs. Beech. The year was 1955, and Mrs. Beech was by a plane on a runway, greeting employees at an open house at the company's plant.

"I though she was one of the most elegant women I had ever seen," said Lehman, now president of the Wichita Area Federation of Labor.

Lehman, whose father worked at Beech Aircraft, was 12 at the time. Ten years later, Lehman herself went to work for the company. And she would come to admire Mrs. Beech as a woman who ran a big company in a day and age when women did not do such things.

"She had a sense of responsibility to the people out on the shop," Lehman said. "I know it bothered her enormously if there had to be layoffs ... She really tried hard to avoid that."

The company, in fact, was known for avoiding layoffs if at all possible.

"I'm not saying that she wasn't a tough businesswoman, because she was," Lehman added. "And I'm not saying that she wasn't tough in contract negotiations, because she was."

But she was known for being fair. And she prided herself on the stability of the work force, often attended company awards ceremonies and followed the children's athletic teams of the Beech Employees Club, sometimes watching their games from her car, Lehman said.

"That lady's name was on a lot of checks that supported me and my family for a lot of years," Lehman said.

City Culture Is Richer Thanks To Her

Olive Ann Beech was well-known in Wichita for her financial support of and dedication to the Wichita Center for the Arts, Music Theater of Wichita and the Wichita Symphony.

But her philanthropy extended far beyond the arts to the social and intellectual health of the community as a whole. Her causes ranged from Soroptimists International of Wichita to First United Methodist Church to the Girl Scouts.

She gave millions of dollars to the Wichita Art Association, now the Wichita Center for the Arts, including the $1 million endowment, she formed in 1990.

"I hope they use it as a nest egg so they'd get the returns off it," Mrs. Beech said when she made the gift. She served on the art association board of trustees for years and was chairman of the board from 1972 to 1980.

The center's main doors, of cast bronze with handles in the shapes of ducks and turtles, were donated by Mrs. Beech in memory of her late husband, Walter.

Despite her support for the arts, Mrs. Beech was not an artist. Her own art collection ranged from Stuben glass and Texas landscapes by Don Warren to hundreds of pig figures.

I'm not an arty person as such," she said in a 1990 interview when she, Gladys Wiedemann and Mary Koch were honored by the center for their contributions. "But we enjoyed working with the art association in all its trials and tribulations."

William Otton, who was president of the Center for the Arts at the time of Mrs. Beech's $1 million contribution, said her business acumen was perhaps as helpful as her financial support.

"She was an incredibly insightful, sharp human being who had specific objectives in mind when she was dealing with people like me," said Otton, who is now director of the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi. "She was unlike a lot of philanthropists in that she understood what the likely outcome was going to be through her giving."

Barry Downing, chairman of the board of trustees at the center, said Mrs. Beech was "very concerned with the cultural environment in Wichita, with making sure there were art opportunities for people. She seemed to have a genuine concern that people in Wichita, children in particular, grew up with art."

Mrs. Beech took a multidisciplinary approach to her support of the arts. She was a founding member of Music Theater of Wichita and also served on the organization's board.

"She was really one of a handful of cultural matriarchs that ensured the community would have music and symphony and art," said Wayne Bryan, producing director of Music Theater. "We're really seeing an era of philanthropy come into transition. These women were powerhouses in terms of getting support for artistic endeavors here."

Harry Littwin, another longtime supporter of the arts in Wichita, served on the Music Theater board with Mrs. Beech.

"it was just a very small group and we needed all the support we could obtain," said Littwin, owner of the Littwin Gallery.

"She was very businesslike, and she was rather conservative in her business views," he said. "It was an interesting combination of two things: a very conservative, no-nonsense businessperson, and a supporter of the arts."

But she applied her sound business principles to her arts involvement."

"One time I I said to her --- she had the rare quality of always being on time --- I asked how she managed to get away from those last-minute phone calls," said Littwin. "She said, 'I just tell them to wait, I'll call them when I get back.' It was a small trait, but an important one to me."

She always was a life director of the Wichita Symphony Society, and was highly involved in "a real important period of our development," during the late 1950s and early '60s, said Mitch Berman, general manager of the symphony.

Mrs. Beech "just had a great love for music," said Marvin Bastain, another symphony board member who served with her. "She did have a great love for cultural things in Wichita and supported them very heavily financially to keep them going and make them flourish."

Bastian remembers Mrs. Beech not just as a "wonderful businesswoman," but as a gracious, warm person.

"She always had a smile on her face, and she always flew a blue flag as a sign of happiness, I guess for blue skies."

Longtime friend Marge Setter said Mrs. Beech's contributions to the community extended beyond the arts.

"She believed, and she expended a lot of energy to a lot of things in the community to make Wichita a better place to live, not only from a cultural point of view, but also from a practical point of view --- hospitals and universities, and a number of social welfare programs. Her involvement was pretty holistic," Setter said.

Mrs. Beech carried her interest in aviation into her support of the Girl Scouts. In 1948, she was instrumental in forming a Wing Scouts troop for girls interested in aviation careers. About 14 Girl Scouts were involved in the program, which included an annual visit to Beech Aircraft for a flight.

Last year, Mrs. Beech gave $25,000 to the Wichita Area Girl Scouts to be used at Camp Wiedemann, in honor of her friend and fellow arts patron Gladys Wiedemann.

She also took a particular interest in the YWCA and its crisis center.

"The YW lost a really good friend today," Donna Ard, president of the YWCA board of directors said Tuesday. "She's been such an advocate in the community."

Mrs. Beech also made solid friendships through her involvement. Marge Setter recalled that her friendship with Mrs. Beech began in the late 1950s when the two women's paths crossed through several arts organizations.

But they became personal friends through card games.

"Gin," said Setter. "We played a lot of cards. She was fun, and a tremendous gin player."
(Wichita Eagle ~ July 7, 1993 ~ Submitted by Lori DeWinkler)


Beech, Olive Ann, 89, Beech Aircraft Corp. chairman emeritus, died Tuesday, July 6, 1993. Memorial service 2 p.m. Friday, First United Methodist Church.

Survivors: daughters, Suzanne Warner of Boulder City, Nev., Mary Lynn Oliver of Wichita; three grandchildren. Memorials have been established with First United Methodist Church, Soroptimist International of Wichita and Wichita Center for the Arts. Downing and Lahey Mortuary.
(Wichita Eagle ~ Wednesday ~ July 7, 1993 ~ Submitted by Lori DeWinkler)

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