• Groundbreaking World War II pilot was a Baylor Bear first

    Florene Miller-Watson

    More than 70 years have passed since World War II ended, but the inspiring stories of more than 1,000 women who served U.S. war efforts as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) are still new to many. The WASPs were trained pilots who flew in World War II, making the same types of sacrifices, flying the same airplanes and participating in many of the same assignments as their male counterparts, except for combat.

    Florene Miller Watson was one of those groundbreaking women — and her call to the skies came while she was a Baylor student.

    Florene’s experience flying had begun much earlier; in fact, she was just 8 years old when she flew for the first time in a classic open-cockpit plane. But when she came to Baylor in 1938, it was as a business major planning for a secretarial career. In the spring of her sophomore year, however, she got a call from her father; he had bought an airplane, and he couldn’t wait for her to come see it. The allure of the skies was so strong that Florene knew she had to go. She loved Baylor (and proudly referred to herself as a “Baylor student” for the rest of her life), but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to head home and earn her wings.

    Tragedy struck a year later, when Florene’s father and brother were killed in a crash while flying the family plane. But Florene’s call to fly was so strong that when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor five months later, she soon volunteered for service, eventually becoming one of 25 women nationally to qualify for the original Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), the precursor to the WASPs.

    After excelling with the WAFS, she was made a commanding officer of the WASPs stationed at Love Field in Dallas. In that role, she served as a test pilot in a top-secret mission to develop radar equipment in airplanes and flew every type of plane the air corps flew. After the war, however, the WASPs were disbanded. Florene got married, had kids, went back to school and earned degrees from Lamar and Houston, and then taught business for three decades at three different colleges.

    Her story (and that of many other WASPs, including another Baylor Bear, Ruth Helm, BBA ’37) might have been lost to history, had it not been for the efforts of a daughter of one of those pilots — Baylor alumna Nancy Parrish, MA ’80, whose mother, Deanie, also flew with the WASPs. Her determination to ensure their stories were told (a great story in its own right) resulted in a new generation learning about their heroism. Parrish’s efforts culminated in the WASPs receiving a long overdue honor. In 2010, they were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor Congress can give a civilian.

    Florene passed away in 2014 at the age of 93, having lived long enough to see her and her fellow WASPs receive the honor and recognition they deserved decades prior. Although her path took her an unplanned direction after she came to Baylor, she told friends throughout her life that if she hadn’t been in love with flying, she’d have been a Baylor graduate — a love that proved to be our nation’s gain.

    Sic ’em, Florene Miller Watson!