PLANT CITY — Ethel Hardee was a grandmother when the idea struck her. Her husband hunted in those days, the late 1950s, and the girls were both grown and married. Mrs. Hardee decided she needed a new interest, beyond poetry and bridge.
Then it came to her. She would learn to fly airplanes.
It must have felt delicious, for she decided not to tell her husband right away. He was Clifford Hardee, founder of Hardee Manufacturing Co. and Plant City Steel.
And so, in the fall of 1958, she took to the skies, soaring over the shingles of homes where women dusted black and white TV sets for weekly episodes of Father Knows Best. Down below, somewhere, was her past, that of a Georgia girl who grew up poor, left school young and worked at a Plant City five-and-dime during the Depression.
After her first solo, she told Mr. Hardee her secret. She thought he seemed proud. They found her a yellow and black, four-seater Cessna. She flew it home from Wichita, Kan., then later around Florida, sometimes wearing a dress and heels.
"You get up there and relax and forget about everything else," she told a newspaper reporter in June 1959.
Flying struck her as a useful skill, like driving a car. She felt safer in the air than on the ground — perhaps a solid instinct, for relatives had noted her speed.
"I've been flying with her on the ground for years," her sister Lillian once said. "I might as well go up in the plane."
Once, Mrs. Hardee flew daughter Carolyn Manee to Daytona Beach, declaring, on approach, "Whup, wrong airport." She flew to Anna Maria Island and buzzed the family beach house.
She met other female pilots. They formed a club and called themselves the Grasshoppers, soaring all over Florida. It was happening everywhere. By the 1960s, a swarm of 12,000 American women had found their wings. Men still outnumbered them 25 to 1.
From Mrs. Hardee's new view, she could not help but see the world. She and another sister, Louise Murray in Tampa, hatched travel plans. They started in 1972, with a Winnebago trip to Alaska. By then, the 30-year marriage to Mr. Hardee had ended and she had married Louis Woolley, whom she met while taking dance classes.
She traveled well into her 80s, sometimes with Mr. Woolley, who died in 1989, and often with her sister.
"She'd say, 'If you'll go with me to Singapore, I'll go with you to Russia,' " Mrs. Murray said.
Yet, if asked about her life's richest adventures, she would have talked about grandchildren and strawberry shortcake — skipping right past Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Tahiti, Indonesia, China, South America and her favorite, Hawaii.
She was 94 when she died April 5 in Plant City. Diabetes had left her blind, but she often said she considered herself lucky.
Until recent years, she went out for lunch regularly with Mrs. Murray. There was a restaurant upstairs at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. The two would find a table near the window, and watch the planes take off.
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.