Gladys O'Donnell
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Ronald Reagan -- An Honorable Man of His Word


After she climbed out of her racing plane, and put away her helmet and goggles for the last time, Gladys O'Donnell directed her determination to the world of politics.

She had made many powerful and influential friends during her racing days. They recognized her leadership qualities and organizing talents. Because she knew people in positions of power on a first-name basis, she quickly became a force in her own right. Patriotic and armed with high principles, she commenced an extensive and impressive political career. She served as delegate to the Republican National Convention and was instrumental in Richard Nixon's campaign for the presidency. She represented the USA, along with George H.W. Bush, at the United Nations, and held a highly responsible office in the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gladys knew Ronald Reagan well, and was among his first ardent supporters as they urged him to run for Governor of the State of California. In him she recognized the firm principles and charismatic personality of leadership. The similarity of their political outlook underscored their fast friendship.

In 1973, when Gladys O'Donnell died of cancer, her estate was barricaded by the decisions of two devious men who took advantage of her condition to gain power of attorney over her belongings. One was an attorney, the other an accountant. Between them they dictated many of her deathbed decisions through a process  of instilling fear. The strong medication that was being administered to ease her pain also influenced her paranoia. She accepted their advice to the letter, and when she passed away, all her possessions were held hostage, which included mementoes of her days as a pioneer aviator. There were numerous silver trophies, racing togs, a pilot's license signed by Orville Wright and, of course, her helmet and goggles.

At that time my work involved compiling information for a book on hang gliding. The San Diego Aerospace Museum allowed me to research material for the book  in their library. When I saw the relics of flying history in their display facility, it flashed through my mind that my mother's memorabilia should be part of this, which would enable the public to view and appreciate the results of  her contribution to flying. She was, after all, one of the pioneers of the sport.

I contacted the men in charge of her estate, hoping to put my brainstorm into action. They shut me up almost before I started to speak, saying, "Nothing in this estate will be touched until all outstanding debts are settled."

At the time of my mother's death I received a note of condolence from Ronald Reagan. On it he had written, "If there is anything I can do for you in your time of sorrow, please let me know." Not knowing which way to turn, I took him at his word. I wrote a brief note informing him of my situation regarding the questionable motives of the guard dogs of my mother's estate and my frustrated attempts to place her mementoes in the museum.

In less than two weeks, Ronald Reagan contacted them with an official letter from the office of Governor of the State of California, strongly suggesting they release her memorabilia to the Aerospace Museum of San Diego. The letter evidently came as both shock and surprise to the obstinate pair, and they  released their grip, immediately shipping the sizeable treasure to the museum.

I wrote a letter of gratitude to Ronald Reagan, a man of honor and a man of his word. I will never forget his generosity in taking time out of his demanding schedule to attend to my small problem.

The sad conclusion to this story lies in the fact that two months later the Aerospace Museum burned to the ground, and with it all of the memorabilia of Gladys O'Donnell. 

-- Lorraine O'Donnell Doyle, daughter of Gladys O'Donnell



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