A life worth sharing

From overcoming a life-threatening infection to being one of the first women to fly helicopters in the U.S. Army, Susan Strand is a woman with many stories to tell.

A Pacific Northwest native, Strand was born in Seattle and moved to Arizona with her parents when she was 5. In 1966, at the age of 18, she was crowned Miss Wool of Arizona and went on to compete in the Miss Wool of America pageant on national television.

While on tour, Strand was featured center stage next to Donald O'Connor as he performed "Singing in the Rain." The cameras zoomed in on her when O'Connor sang the words, "look at that face," Strand remembered.

In 1968, three-quarters of the way through her college education at Arizona State University, Strand was diagnosed with encephalitis - inflammation of the brain caused by infection or an allergic reaction - and went into a coma for more than four months.

The doctors told her parents she would be a vegetable if she ever woke from the coma, Strand said. Her parents were devastated.

One night, Strand recalled the story as her parents later told it to her, the doctor had a dream he went to her bedside and spoke to her in German - a language he wasn't fluent in - and that she woke up and answered him. Five hours before the same doctor was scheduled to perform

surgery on Strand - with parental consent - that could kill her, he went to her room as he did in the dream.

"The words simply came from his mouth," Strand said, "and he didn't even know what he was saying."

As the story goes, Strand sat up and responded in German, awake from the coma.

Wanting to graduate with her class, Strand attended summer school - against the doctor's orders - and received a diploma with honors in international affairs and foreign language in 1969.

After college, Strand took a job as a stewardess with Pan American World Airways. In a room full of hundreds of people, she was one of four hired.

Strand started working at the Los Angeles, Calif., Pan Am base but soon was working on flights headed to and from Vietnam. Serving the soldiers as they returned to the U.S. from being at war is one of the highlights of her Pan Am career, Strand said, remembering how the captain sometimes would announce that, as a special treat, a "topless server" soon would come out, only for the male co-pilot to appear serving beverages without a shirt, much to the soldiers' disappointment.

During the flights to and from Southeast Asia, Strand learned how to play seven kinds of poker and made countless friends but what stands out most in her mind is how genuinely excited the soldiers were to drink fresh milk.

"We had a lot of fun," Strand said smiling at the memory. "It was an honor."

Strand went on to steward in New York and Europe before returning to L.A. and eventually a new base in London where she lived with a family whose daughter had married and left home. "They treated me like one of their own," she said fondly.

While working out of Washington, D.C., Strand was selected to participate in multiple presidential events, including a cruise with President Richard Nixon. She never met Nixon in person but did meet Gerald Ford. Ducking under the press rope and strolling past the Secret Service, she walked up to Ford and asked to have her picture taken with him.

He responded by saying, "Sure, anything for Miss Pan Am," Strand said.

On her days off, Strand would walk more than three miles to the airport to learn to fly. After she received her pilot's license, the pilot on a Pan Am flight made the announcement over the intercom and let Strand fly the 747 airplane with more than 400 passengers for about 15 minutes.

"OK, log that in your logbook," the pilot told her.

Bitten by the flying bug, Strand decided she wanted to fly a helicopter and joined the Army. "I went up to a recruiter and told him I wanted to learn to fly. He laughed and told me women weren't allowed in flight school," Strand said. But she didn't let that stop her. "I told him, 'That will change!"

And it did. Strand took the test to enter flight school and failed by one point. Certain there was a mistake, Strand asked to see the graded paper, which mysteriously vanished. She was allowed to retake the exam and passed.

Strand, 33, entered basic training with 17- and 18-year-olds. Her never-give-up attitude proved worthwhile. Strand graduated from flight school and flew helicopters in the Army for 10 years. "It was a lot of pressure but I did it for the women coming in after me," she said.

Her missions varied from surveying and chartering to search and rescue. Once, she landed a helicopter on top of the World Trade Center, Strand said proudly.

As she aged, Strand took the advice of her father to find a job through the government, for retirement purposes, and applied for a national park ranger position, where she worked for 15 years. From there, she took a job for five years giving lectures with a cruise ship company before retiring in Sequim.

A pioneer for women in the 20th century, Strand never married or had children. "When I was young I knew I wouldn't get married," she admitted. "There were things in my life I wanted to accomplish and I knew it wouldn't be fair to a husband and children."

"I've never regretted that decision," she said firmly.

Now, Strand strives to be an inspiration to men and women of all ages. "I believe everybody has a gift and if there is something you want to do and you enjoy - do it," she encouraged. "Whether it's being a doctor or collecting garbage, do what you enjoy and what you are good at. The main thing is to enjoy what you are doing because you will be a happier person for it."

"I know it sounds idealistic," she continued, "but I believe that if people do what they enjoy instead of chasing the almighty dollar, the world will be a better place."

In the comfort of her home and the company of her shih tzu/Yorkshire terrier-cross dog, Strand is writing her autobiography.

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