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An Unforeseen Honor

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

By Y. Kay Howell - USA

It is difficult to meet new people. I certainly did not expect to acquire a dear and special 90- year old friend when I served as a guardian on an Honor Flight to Washington DC. Honor Flights from across our nation take veterans to visit our Capitol’s memorials, up and back in a single day. It’s a flurry of American flags and wheelchairs, of salutes and embraces, of memories and tears. Our flight consisted of 75 veterans, 75 guardians: I was one of those guardians paired with Mary Ellen. This remarkable woman was commissioned as an officer in the US Navy in the 1950s at a time when only 10% of officers could be women. As she told me, “I had a position of authority but was not given the authority to command.” Being a strong and determined woman, this annoyed her to no end. Mary Ellen had such rich stories: She told of her work in Communications at the Pentagon, decoding a vital message and delivering top-secret documents to the Naval Aide to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She helped organize Bob Hope’s USO show in Alaska, and she shared one unforgettable incident with an exceptional person of history: While visiting the White House, Mary Ellen innocently, took a step back in a line for the ladies’ room and landed on the foot of Eleanor Roosevelt. “I am so sorry!” exclaimed Mary Ellen. “Oh, no need to apologize”, Eleanor responded. “I was the one in the way.”

Mary Ellen & I quickly realized that we had much in common. We both studied at Florida State University. We both marched on the Capitol for the Equal Rights Amendment. We excitedly shared many of the same viewpoints, as though we were kindred spirits. Our day in DC was tremendously rewarding: We felt like royalty as our three busloads of veterans received a National Park Police escort all day long. As we sat in the front row of the bus watching the police, with sirens blasting and lights flashing, we laughed and figured the cars must have thought there were big shot VIPs in those buses! And, for a fleeting moment, we certainly were!

Our spectacular day continued as Mary Ellen requested that I push her in the wheelchair, with mixed results. We nearly collided, like dominoes, with a line of wheel-chaired veterans, on a moving sidewalk at the airport. Whew, a close call! As we struggled to get up the incline at the Vietnam Memorial, I nearly ran over the ankles of a veteran in front of us. Thankfully, Mary Ellen hollered at me to stop! At the Memorials along the Mall, strangers stopped to shake Mary Ellen’s hand and thank her for her service. As one not used to fanfare, her modesty was overwhelmed by the attention.

Following our first day together, we continued our journey into friendship, and lunch dates became our thing. Mary Ellen earned a BS in Bacteriology plus completed her graduate studies in Food and Nutrition, so she had an opinion or two on proper meals. Sometimes we ate at her assisted living facility, although the food was not always up to her standards. Not shy about expressing her knowledge, she conducted a talk for the residents on how to eat healthy in a facility dining room. We enjoyed our outings to a quaint Vietnamese restaurant and treated ourselves to a posh lunch at the beach. The conversation was always lively and of course, we knew just what the world should do to put things back right! A favorite outing was a visit to our local community radio station where Mary Ellen was interviewed on a show highlighting women’s issues. She humbly smiled when her role as a trailblazer was acknowledged and celebrated.

For our last visit several months ago, I picked up a gluten-free quiche for lunch, from Mary Ellen’s favorite restaurant. She was a bit weary, on portable oxygen, her heart slowing down. She was so happy I could come over to help organize her apartment. We shared a need for things to be in order. I’d been unable to see Mary Ellen since then, due to the COVID-19 quarantine of senior facilities. We spoke weekly though. She ‘liked’ all of my FB photos. She missed visits with her family...and I missed her. She said that I was just like her, which is the ultimate compliment. Following a slow decline in her health, Mary Ellen recently passed away. I will miss her laugh and her spunk. Our unforeseen and unexpected friendship lasted two years and I am ever so honored to have known Mary Ellen.

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