Aviator and civic leader
Gamma Chi, Stetson University, 1969
Excuse Me While I Touch the Sky
Marny Gilluly has flown high, and low, and upside down in her life. And this is no metaphor. She has her commercial pilot’s license and she’s realized a lifelong dream: flying with the United States Navy’s Blue Angels.
“We departed from Pensacola Naval Air Station and soon were flying at the speed of heat,” she says, describing her Blue Angels experience. “When the sleek blue bird was out over the Gulf of Mexico, we did a modified Blues air show. We broke the speed of sound at Mach 1.02, and I could see the waves of the ocean rushing below.”
Marny has become accustomed to breaking barriers in her life. The sound barrier, the glass ceiling. In 1969, she married her high school sweetheart after his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. They moved to Florida for his flight training and she found her second love: flying. She’d watch planes taking off and would dream of piloting them while she finished her English degree at the University of West Florida.
But she didn’t just dream of flying. She worked for it to become reality, saving her pay from writing ad copy at a local radio station in Meridian, Mississippi. It was one of the few jobs she could get then. “Employers tended to discriminate against Navy wives because they moved around a lot,” she says.
After relocating to the Washington, D.C. area, she paid for flight lessons with her hard-won copywriting pay. Ground school, practice take-offs and landings, solo flights. Then, one of the biggest tests of all: flying solo cross-country by herself four times, Chesapeake Bay to Delaware. On that first cross-country flight, it was a beautiful day. “I was flying over the water, and I could see the birds soaring with me over the shoreline. It was a feeling of freedom and exhilaration unlike any I had ever felt before.”
Sea to shining sea
Marny got her pilot’s license in 1981. Along the way, she built an unusual career for a former English major. She did oceanographic research at the Naval Research Lab in Maryland, using computers to analyze ice age data obtained from deep-sea sediment cores. Her data crunching helped scientists there make major breakthroughs in climatology.
Her next port of call: Capitol Hill, where she helped computerize the voting system in the House of Representatives, and then to standardize computer systems in the House. This is also where Marny met her present husband, C.W. Gilluly, a former naval aviator who flew 151 combat missions during the Vietnam War.
Since then, she’s served in volunteer leadership roles at the national level for Alpha Chi Omega, the National Panhellenic Conference, the University of West Florida Board of Trustees, and the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem.
And she’s dealt with extreme loss and adversity along the way, losing her sister, mother and father within the span of three years. She started running when her sister died, and since then she’s run 15 marathons. She was sponsored by Reebok, took sixth place in the master’s division of the Boston Marathon and seventh in New York City, and she was the only American running in the St. Petersburg, Russia Marathon in 1990, before the Berlin Wall fell.
Built for speed
Marny’s dad died the night after watching her run the Rotterdam, Holland Marathon. “I had to reach deep into my heart and soul and muster a lot of strength then,” she says. “He’d taught me that I didn’t have to do the typical things women did, that I could seek my dreams and do things differently.”
It was a lesson he’d given her early in life. As the lead chemist of the team that developed the engine oil Valvoline, he would take her to the Indy 500. She was in the pits with Mario Andretti, whose car Valvoline sponsored. She went with her dad to the Arizona desert for time trials to test different blends of oil and gasoline in cars for speed and performance.
She’s driven Corvettes since 1969, gone skydiving and scuba diving, and worked in the computer industry when there were few women who chose that path. She’s also earned her aerobatic, instrument and multi-engine pilot’s ratings, run marathons, flown an F-15 with the Air Force and an F-18 with the Blue Angels.
“Women can take the road less traveled,” she says. “What I’ve learned from life and from being in Alpha Chi Omega is that it is important to have high ideals and values. Treat every person with the utmost respect and kindness. Respect and honor each person’s differences. Dream the biggest dreams, and strive to achieve them.”