Lucile Wright was a “Lady of Firsts,” as one biographer called her, and acquired a long list of accomplishments in her lifetime. Described as being “nearer pint sized than quart,” her petite frame nonetheless housed a voraciously curious mind and bold personality that resulted in a life that could only be described as wide-ranging.
Born Lucile Miller in 1901 in Beatrice, Nebraska, Lucile’s family later moved to Billings, Montana, where she completed high school with honors in only three years. According to her, her parents were both terribly disappointed that she was not born a boy, so they decided to raise her as one. She learned to ride horses, fish, and hunt, along with other “masculine pursuits which in those days were more uncommon for a girl than they are now,” according to a sorority sister that wrote a brief biography of Lucile.
Many people who lived in the rural West at the turn of the 20th century would likely disagree that this was an unusual upbringing for a girl, but one thing Lucile did learn from her parents’ attempts to expose her to varied activities and skills was that if she wanted to do something, she would not let society’s opinions of her gender’s supposed limitations stop her.
Known as someone who was always doing more than one thing at a time, Lucile spent her high school years not only organizing a new “Girls Yell Club” (presumably cheerleaders or a pep squad), but also in performing public service during WWI, including knitting for the Red Cross.
After high school graduation, she went on to study languages and literature with “science on the side” at the University of Minnesota. She transferred to Washington University when her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she studied the same subjects but “went to art school on the side.” Along with her studies, she started a pep club (The Peppers), wrote for the school and local newspapers, joined the Rifle Team, and headed a Big Sisters group.
She said she wanted to study medicine but acquiesced when her father suggested she study law instead and when she and her family moved to Washington, DC, she also took a Foreign Service course at Georgetown. Finally balking at her parents’ wishes, however, she decided to do what was necessary to pursue a career in medicine.
She had to tell a few falsehoods about her credentials to “hold down several men’s jobs at once” and occasionally bend the rules to transform her fascinations into real pursuits, which later led her to joke about her “checkered career.” For instance, she became the first female and first person without an MD or PhD to hold the job of research chemist at the City Hospital on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island in New York). She got the job by telling them she had “lots of experience” and writing her own reference letters. She was successful in the job, which included teaching nursing students and, when she got bored with her regular duties, she established and ran a department of clinical photography—where she was the only woman in New York to hold such a position. When she left, they hired three men to take over all her duties.
Lucile married Dr. Edward G. Winkler, who had been an intern at New York hospital and a new acquaintance of Lucile when she decided to turn away from her family’s financial support and run away to New York to pursue a career in medicine. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out Lucile soon after would become Mrs. Winkler during her stint as a research chemist.
Later, in Buffalo, New York, she worked as his receptionist and nurse. Again, “on the side,” she made medical motion pictures and helped prepare his lectures. By creating a chapter of her college sorority, they sponsored a club for underprivileged girls, similar to the Girl Scouts. She supported many organizations in her life, but those that focused on teaching practical skills and confidence to girls seemed to be a particular passion for Lucile.
After she broke her back falling from a horse, she had to spend a year convalescing. That must have made this ever-active go-getter unbearably restless. She and the doctor also divorced in 1940. It was during this time she decided she wanted to learn to fly, and to do so, she wanted to buy her own training plane. She started selling life insurance and began working as a photographer for the US Army in 1942 to help fund her new passion for aviation. Keeping up with three jobs to learn to fly (again, “on the side”) is admirable. When asked how she did it, Lucile responded, “I have to keep my nose to the grindstone to keep my plane in the air.” Lucile never let obstacles keep her from doing what she wanted.
In 1944, she married John H. Wright, who was the president of a bank and head of the Jamestown, New York, telephone company. He, too, had a passion for photography. And he owned two planes! They were a perfect match, despite his 40-or-so year head start on life. For their honeymoon, Lucile flew the couple to the west coast. She later said she loved her new home of Jamestown, New York, because it was the “most western town of any eastern town she had been in.”
In Jamestown, she was active as ever. She again helped form a girls club and was active in several clubs, including the Jamestown chapter of the 99s, the International Association of Women Pilots. Her husband died just a few years later, in 1951, at age 83. His obituary describes his lifelong passion for aviation, resulting in his buying his first plane at the age of 73. It seems the timing of his first meeting with Lucile was kismet. He also helped form the local Civil Air Patrol and served on the Jamestown Municipal Airport Commission. Lucile became the first woman to serve on this commission when she took over her late husband’s unexpired term. This proved to be an important turn in her life since she served as chair of the airport commission for the better part of a decade and oversaw the creation and execution of a major improvement plan for the Jamestown Municipal airport.
While serving on the airport commission and multiple other boards, Lucile also continued to work as the secretary-treasurer of her husband’s telephone company for 35 years. Though she took her first flight way back in 1938 (before she had a license to do it!), by the time of WWII, she was serving in the Civil Air Patrol alongside her husband. She was the only woman in western New York to do so.
She flew in several Powder Puff Derbies until 1954 but stayed active as a commercial pilot traveling all over the world until the 1970s. In 1976, she moved to Cody, Wyoming, where she, of course, was active in many local groups and clubs including the Republican Women’s Club, the Cody Music Club, and the Cody Country Art League.
She died at the age of 89 from Alzheimer’s and her ashes were spread over the mountains because, despite her globetrotting and kaleidoscopic life, Lucile always loved the West.
Post by Brigida Blasi, AHC Public History Educator
“Lucile M. Wright,” Obituary. The Billings Gazette. June 23, 1990, p. 17.
“John H. Wright Dies at 83,” Obituary. Buffalo Evening News. February 19, 1951, p. 4.