With Love, Art Takes Flight


Theater enthusiasts might not know the name Royal Vale Heath Jr., ’43, but now it is not one they will forget. Picture this: A quiet backlit stage, hushed voices in the audience, the slight rustling in chairs, and finally a collective sigh as the curtain goes up at the DeBaun Performing Arts Center.

It was a tumultuous time for any student attending Stevens in the 40s. The war was raging and many young men would soon enter the war after graduation. Pilots were desperately needed. Royal was already flying, having enrolled in a civil pilot training program. Miles away, at Smith College campus, his younger sister Gloria was attending classes. A few weekends before in happier times, Gloria visited Royal at Stevens and he took her up in a plane. After returning to Smith College, Gloria founded the Smith Flying Club and convinced the other members that they should buy their own plane. Royal wouldn’t be the only Heath in the family learning to fly.

After graduation, both Heath siblings entered the war. Gloria answered the call serving as a WWII WASP, assigned to fly a B-26 bomber to assist the fighter pilots with gunnery practice. When the war ended, the siblings were reunited. In 1945, they each bought a surplus military plane and flew them home to show their father. Back on the ground, Gloria’s father reminded them of the cost of fuel and insurance. Who would pay? Gloria sold her plane and took a job as an air insurance underwriter. Not content to stay on the ground, Royal, a decorated war veteran, became a flight instructor.

In 1946, Gloria approached the director of the Flight Safety Foundation to see if she could get a job to help improve flight safety. One year later, she was officially hired as the first employee. Now picture this: The Heath siblings at dinner, talking excitedly to each other as they were passing food around the table, reminiscing over stories and telling each other plans for the future. See this clearly, because one year later the story was horribly altered. One story ended when Royal unexpectedly died flying a plane in 1948. The new story has begun. Gloria went on, her career rising, perhaps even higher than she thought when she was sharing confidences with her cherished brother Royal.

Gloria’s career continued to rise. Her contributions to air safety were numerous. She won the Barbour International Air Safety Award, the Smith College Medal, the Lifetime Achievement Award of Women in Aerospace, among others. She was inducted in the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame and was named one of the 100 most influential women in aviation. Gloria and her fellow WASPs were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of their service to the military. Throughout her life, she doesn’t spend much time fussing over awards, her life’s focus has been to help others. Now retired, there is one award she is interested in: The Royal Vale Heath, Jr. ’43 Endowed Fund for Dramatics at Stevens. Royal’s other love while at Stevens was drama. He never got to explore that path with his life cut so tragically short. Gloria, alone at home in Connecticut, decides to memorialize her brother with an endowment for the arts. She smiles for a moment remembering Royal flying.

Now picture this: The play is over, the curtain has come down. A young man stands in the wings, heart beating fast, feeling like he could take flight. He’s waiting for his cue to take a bow. It is an ending of course, but really a beginning. He is not sure where he is going yet. Yes, first there will be bows, applause – he’s not sure it is all for him – but then what? He doesn’t know. The future stretches vast before him. In the dark, waiting for a signal, he gives a silent thanks to the Heath family for helping him get here. Then he steps into the light, face shining, waving to the crowd.

Gloria Heath passed away peacefully in her home on December 16, 2017. She was 95. Her obituary said she “will be greatly missed by all her beloved friends who feel very blessed to have known her and to have shared in different parts of her life journey.”


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