Mary Feik remembers all too well the day she applied for admission to the engineering department at the University of Buffalo in 1941. The registrar looked her up and down several times, she recalls, and turned her down without looking at her credentials.
"He said, 'I'm sorry, we don't take women because [they] can't handle the work,' " Feik said. "And then he left the room."
Feik, 84, looks back at the incident with a different perspective after a 65-year career working as an airplane master mechanic for the Air Force and later for its civilian auxiliary, the Civil Air Patrol. As a pilot, she has flown more than 6,000 hours in fighter, attack, bomber and training aircraft and helped restore famous aircraft that have been on display at the National Air and Space Museum.
"You can get what you want," she says, "if you have a backup plan."
Feik added another honor to her long list of awards this month. The Civil Air Patrol honored her with a lifetime membership for her accomplishments as a teacher, mentor, pilot and engineer. Feik, who is a colonel in the air patrol, received the award earlier this month during the Civil Air Patrol's national board meeting and annual conference in Florida.
Over the years, she has racked up a number of accolades, including being honored by NASA as one of 47 significant women in aerospace.
Feik's accomplishments are inspirational - especially considering the era in which she achieved them, said Maj. Gen. Amy Courter, the national commander of the Civil Air Patrol. Courter is the first female head of the organization.
"It's funny because she is role model to me," Courter said. Feik showed that "it is important to just do the right things and do them well."
Feik is a member of the Maryland Wing's Annapolis Composite Squadron. She lives in Annapolis on a large lot that includes her house and two small garages. One garage houses cars. The other is a mini-hangar where she restores airplanes.
National awards - from the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Aviation Club and other organizations - cover her mantel. Books with airplane themes are stacked three feet high. Next to them are dozens of issues of Air & Space magazine.
On display are pictures of her late husband, Robert Feik, who served with her in the Civil Air Patrol. Her daughter Robin Vest and son-in-law Warren Vest also are members.
Feik grew up in Tonawanda, N.Y., during the Great Depression. She began working with her father, repairing cars, at age 11 because he could not afford to hire anyone. Feik learned how to overhaul engines, weld and rivet. She graduated from high school in three years and was crushed when the University of Buffalo turned her down.
Her father managed to get her a job in 1942 with the Army Air Forces, teaching aircraft maintenance at a base in North Carolina. She worked there two months before she wrote a proposal to build flight simulators that landed her a job at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.
"I was the only girl in the whole place," Feik said.
At Wright, she learned how to fly at the age of 18. Once she mastered those skills, she began to convert planes into flight simulators, called Captivairs. One of her flight simulators became the prototype design for several types of high-performance fighter planes, according to the Civil Air Patrol.
Feik later became part of a traveling engineer-assessment team that evaluated which airplanes the Air Force should buy. After spending 15 years at Wright Field, she worked at several Air Force bases.
After she retired, she worked for 10 years at the National Air and Space Museum's restoration facility in Suitland. During that time, she restored aircraft such as the Spad XIII, a French World War I biplane.
In 1975, she joined the Civil Air Patrol. The patrol, started in 1941, is made up mostly of volunteers who patrol the coasts and often help the Coast Guard in search-and-rescue missions.
Feik, who had been fixing the patrol's craft for years, started training its teenage cadets. She still travels the United States on speaking engagements, and joined the ranks of the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart when the patrol named an achievement ribbon after Feik in 2002. More than 4,000 cadets have earned the Mary Feik Achievement Ribbon, given to cadet senior airmen.
Robin Vest said her mother has an incredible effect on cadets. She is one of the only people named in their achievement program who is still living.
"The cadets just go crazy," said Vest, a lieutenant colonel and financial analyst for the Civil Air Patrol. "They just hover around her."
Feik still flies her 1962 Piper Comanche. She said she plans to start restoring a 1952 Piper Pacer when she has time between speaking engagements.
Feik always passes along her father's advice to the cadets that she mentors. Among the statements about respect and being a team player, one stands out in particular.
"Always be a lady. Don't be one of the guys," Feik said.
For her male cadets, she changes lady to gentleman.