Illinois Aviation Co-Founder Flies West

Friends called Joan Kerwin a dynamo.

Joan Kerwin
Kerwin began her aviation career as a stewardess in the 1950s for United Airlines.Chicago Area 99s

Joan Kerwin was eager to fly airplanes when she graduated in 1950 from Joliet Township High School southwest of Chicago. The closest she could come in the early 50s was a job as a flight attendant – they called them stewardesses back then – with United Airlines. Kerwin left her job sooner than planned however when she wed her husband, Walter. Back then, airlines refused to employ married female cabin crew.

She didn't take her first flying lesson until the late 1960s, but earned her private pilot certificate in 1969. Early in her career, Joan Kerwin became active in the Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots (99s), founded by Amelia Earhart in 1929. Kerwin served on the 99s' Board of Directors for many years. Kerwin died in June at age 87 in Wheaton, Illinois, after a brief respiratory illness.

Kerwin remembered how different things were in the 1960s for ladies interested in flying. “Walter said I could do it [take flying lessons] so long as I came home from flight school in time for the kids to come home from school for lunch,” she told the Wheaton News in August 1992. “So I took my classes in the morning at DuPage County Airport (DPA).” She and her husband purchased a new Cessna 172 in 1975. Kerwin kept that airplane until 2017. Before they ended in 1977, Joan Kerwin also flew in two of the famous transcontinental Powder Puff Derbys.

Joan Kerwin used her experience as a Board member for the 99s to help create the Illinois Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame’s current president Charles Rodriguez said, “Joan was kind of like the matriarch of the Illinois Hall of Fame. Even though she was in declining health for the past year or so, she still made the meetings and the banquets. She was nothing short of a dynamo.” Kerwin stepped down from the Hall of Fame board just this past spring.

Madeleine Monaco, a current delegate to the Aviation Hall of Fame from Chicago Executive Airport, said, “Joan was not only a mentor; she was a supportive ever-smiling friend. She believed firmly in supporting each organization she belonged to. And she was generous with her time and talents. She will be sorely missed for her calm deliberate speech and her steadfast belief in the Hall of Fame’s value to aviation.”

The Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame inducted its first members in 1970 and includes names like Octave Chanute, George Priester, Harold Holmes and, of course, Joan Kerwin, who was herself inducted in 2002.