RANCHO SANTA FE — Few readers are old enough to fully appreciate the zest for life exhibited by women during World War II, which opened doors for many more of us today.
One in our midst was Olive O’Neill Alexander of Rancho Santa Fe. She passed away at her home April 2. She was 88.
In 1941, at the age of 20, Alexander was one of a handful of women in the United States to qualify for a scholarship from the federal civilian pilot training, or CPT, program. The scholarship was created by the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Association, predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration, in response to the large-scale flight training of civilians by Nazi Germany and Italy prior to World War II.
As the United States prepared to enter the war, women were barred from CPT participation.
“I just got in under the wire,” she told her hometown newspaper at the time. In completing the training Alexander became the first woman in Darien, Conn., to earn a private pilot’s license.
In 1942, nine months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Alexander earned another distinction in Darien when she became the first woman to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary of the U.S. Navy, or WAVE. After completion of a four-month course at the U. S. Naval Radio Reserve School at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she received a petty officer’s rating. She was subsequently transferred to the Coast Guard in Boston where she served as a radioman, third class.
Olive Alexander was one of five pilots in her family — including her uncle, father and two of her brothers — who became known locally as “the flying O’Neills.”
According to her son, John Alexander, she is thought to have stopped flying shortly after marrying Gerard Alexander, a marine officer she met during the war.
“The story she often told was taking my dad up for a ride, probably from the field in Connecticut where she most often flew, when she was quite pregnant with her first child,” he said. “There was some weather that day, so it was a rather choppy ride, and when they landed my dad was quite green around the gills. So my dad grounded her, at least for the duration of her pregnancy.”
Gerard Alexander went on to enjoy a successful career in civilian life as a manager at Dupont in Wilmington, Del., and later as president of the B.F. Goodrich Tire Co. in Akron, Ohio. He and Olive moved the family to Rancho Santa Fe around 1975.
Once a mother, Olive Alexander redirected her sights on raising four children and perfecting her golf game. A member of the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club, she scored two holes-in-one in her lifetime. The last time she played, shortly before her death, she defeated her partner who was 20 years her junior.
“My mom’s experiences before World War II, as the only woman in what was then a men’s-only club of pilots, were typical of how she lived her whole life, and by example taught others who admired her attitude,” John Alexander said. “From her I learned to think for myself, and never hesitate to go after an important goal, even if others tell you it’s beyond your place in life.”
Olive Alexander was interred at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma next to her husband, Gerard. The family requests that any donations in her memory be made to the Rancho Santa Fe Library Guild, 17040 Avenida de Acacias, Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. 92067.
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