Columbia pilot to receive Congressional Gold Medal

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 | 11:10 p.m. CST
Mary Burch Nirmaier is to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

COLUMBIA — A Columbia woman will join a list that includes George Washington, Walt Disney and Nelson Mandela.

Mary Burch Nirmaier, 89, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday for her service as a Woman Air Force Service Pilot during World War II.

She is scheduled to receive the medal at 11 a.m. in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, according to a release. Nirmaier will return to Columbia at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Columbia Regional Airport.

According to Salute to Veterans Media spokeswoman Nancy Fields, Nirmaier was a pilot because “so many men were overseas.”

The release said she has had a love of airplanes and flying since childhood.

As a young adult, she took pilot training in Sweetwater, Texas, in a program for male cadets. She was not supposed to have acrobatic training, but “Mary practiced ... by herself when no one else was looking,” the release said.

She then served 14 months active duty in Douglas, Ariz., as first pilot, and spent the next 20 years in the Air Force Reserve.

Nirmaier later worked for United Press International and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in communications research at MU.

Since World War II, she has held positions such as press secretary for U.S. Rep. John Breckinridge of Kentucky and reporter for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

She later worked at Harvard Business School and Rockefeller Institute for University Presidents. She also had four children.

Fields said Nirmaier will be escorted at the ceremony by Columbia native Capt. William “Whiskey” Bond, a graduate of MU. Bond was a commander of the F-14 Tomcat Squadrons.

Nirmaier and Bond will be the honored guests at the Annual Honored Guests and Volunteers Banquet at 5:30 p.m. May 29 at the Hearnes Center for the 22nd Annual Salute to Veterans celebration.

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