S. Indiana nonagenarians reflect on their storied lifetimes

Updated 1/23/2019 2:03 PM

ORLEANS, Ind. -- With a couple of parachutes in the trunk of his convertible, Dwight Dillon was training registered nurses to jump from planes as a part of the Civil Air Patrol's emergency services.

But he was a paratrooper, not a pilot, so he needed Betty Crites' help manning the controls.

Crites received a scholarship to learn to fly from the Arthur M. Godfrey Aviation Foundation when she was in her early 30s, and by the time she met Dwight, she was an accomplished pilot.

"When I flew with a male pilot, before I'd jump, I'd pat him on the back, then jump," Dwight said. "With her, I reached up, kissed her on the cheek and then I got the hell out of there!"

That kiss more than six decades ago still elicits laughter from the couple as they sit in front of the fireplace at their home in rural Orleans. Dwight goes on to explain his wife was a better pilot than a paratrooper.

"The first time she jumped, she broke her leg," he said with a laugh.

"He likes to tell that story," she said.

But that's not the only story worth telling from the lives of Dwight "Bud" and Betty (Crites) Dillon. At ages 96 and 95, respectively, the Dillons took advantage of every opportunity afforded them.

"For us, it was one big opportunity after another," Betty said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there were less than a half-million World War II veterans still alive in 2018, and Dwight is among them.

When he was drafted, Dwight told the draft board he wanted to be a paratrooper. It was a dream he held since he was 12 and saw an air show in Illinois.

"There was one paratrooper, and from that day on, I wanted to be him," Dwight told me.

But the United States Army had other plans. Although he was placed with a paratrooper unit, for the three years he spent fighting the Axis powers in Europe, he never got to jump out of a plane. Instead, he was infantry - marching through Italy, North Africa, southern France and eventually into Germany.

Betty urges Dwight to talk about what happened when his unit marched from Naples into Rome. He stops for a minute, thinks and says, "I had my first drink of wine, and I got sicker than a dog."

She shakes her head and says, "That wasn't what I had in mind."

Betty was talking about how, as the troops fought in Italy, Gen. Mark Clark sent American troops into a vacant Rome instead of beating back the German Army. Because Rome was considered an open city, no resistance was encountered. The move allowed the German Army to get away, costing the United States double the casualties later in the campaign.

Dwight was a part of the campaign that freed up the Anzio beachhead and is now known as the Battle of Anzio, the Battle of Monte Cassino and the capture of Mount Rotondo.

"After we took Rome, we were needed in France," Dwight said. That's when the unit heard about the invasion of Normandy. "We said, 'It's about time those guys over in England earned their pay.'"

By the time Dwight's unit made it to Germany, the war was coming to an end. After three years, he was discharged back to the United States for a 90-day leave. He thought this would be his chance to finally attend jump school, so he could realize his dream of becoming a paratrooper.

"I ended up at the Presidio of San Francisco," Dwight said of the former military fort. Visibly upset that he wasn't in jump school, he finally expressed his frustration to a commanding officer. "I told him I was ready to desert the Army. The next day I was on a train headed to Fort Benning, Georgia."

He attended jump school at Fort Benning and spent the next six to seven years serving as a paratrooper for the Army before retiring from the service.

"He kept after it and after it until he finally got it," Betty said with a smile.

Throughout his lifetime, Dwight logged more than 200 jumps. He stopped leaping out of planes when he and Betty had their daughter Katherine.

"She said, 'You've got a child now, you'd better stop jumping,'" Dwight said.

That worked for quite a while, but about five years ago, Dwight decided he wanted to jump one last time. Unfortunately, he suffered a heart condition and had to have a pacemaker installed.

Betty recalls, "The surgeon came running down the hallway, yelling, 'No more parachute jumps! No more chain saws!'"

"So I watch a lot of TV now," Dwight said.

Betty's family first came to southern Indiana in the mid-1800s as Quakers from North Carolina. Their original home still stands on Tater Road in Orange County, and Betty is proud of her ancestors' involvement with the Underground Railroad.

Her maternal grandparents owned a farm on the west side of Mitchell. Her mother attended four years of schooling at Indiana University during World War I, but as she got ready to graduate, she came down with tuberculosis, which was almost a death sentence at that time. In an effort to cure herself, she moved to Tucson, Arizona, where the dry desert air did the trick. It was there she met Betty's father when the two worked together at Western Union.

The family moved throughout the western portion of the United States as her father was promoted. They spent time in Tucson, Seattle, San Francisco and Oregon. However, at one point, Betty and her sister Mary attended school in Mitchell, where Betty, an accomplished piano player and singer, played in the band.

She remembers how, after the school bought a new drum set, her band teacher and Hollace Sherwood convinced her to learn to play percussion.

"I told them I'd rather play baseball, but of course I did it. They finally convinced me," she said.

Sometime later, she was chosen as drum majorette, carrying a yard stick decorated in blue and gold.

"We didn't have TV, so I had never even heard or seen a drum major before," Betty said. "But I did it. I still have a photograph of myself marching down Main Street, leading the Mitchell Band."

Betty finished out her high school career in San Francisco. While a student there, 16-year-old Betty was approached by her teachers about entering a scholarship pageant. She won and was named Miss County San Francisco, which qualified her to compete in the Miss California Rodeo Salinas.

But for that pageant, she needed to learn how to ride a horse.

"By that time, because I was competing against 40 girls from all over the state, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce got involved and helped my parents pay for riding lessons," Betty said. "I had ridden an old work horse at my grandparents' farm, and I was a natural born rider. ... At the time, Salinas was the largest rodeo in the world."

She won the contest, tying for ridership and winning the other three categories. Her prize was a tour throughout the upper northwestern portion of the United States, visiting Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. In Montana, the Blackfeet Nation honored her as a princess, giving her a traditional name and naming a waterfall in her honor.

"Boy, that trip was just fantastic," she said.

Betty's early experiences would turn out to be just the tip of the iceberg for the determined young lady who had her sights set on international service.

After high school, she began working for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. Her first exposure to international diplomacy was at a United Nations conference in San Francisco following the war. She eventually began working for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and got involved in political campaigns.

"I was a student of the United Nations in every way," she said.

At the age of 35, she bought her first plane and began flying Civil Air Patrol flights. CAP is a congressionally chartered, federally supported nonprofit corporation that serves as the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force. It performs three key missions: emergency services, which includes search and rescue (by air and ground) and disaster relief operations; aerospace education for youth and the general public; and cadet programs for teenage youth.

She became only the second female to serve as a CAP commander and later went to Overseas National Airways as assistant vice president. She applied to Civil Service and got assigned to the Civil Aeronautics Board. Then it was on to the Department of State.

Betty was then appointed by Sargent Shriver to serve as deputy director of the Peace Corps in Tunisia and became the first woman country director when she went to Ceylon in 1967. Her Ceylon appointment was met with resistance, as some groups in the country declared they did not want the United States Peace Corps involved. She left in 1971 when the Peace Corps pulled out of Ceylon. A year later, Ceylon left British rule and became Sri Lanka.

She spent six years in Montreal, Canada, after receiving a presidential appointment to the International Civil Aviation Organization. She was the first women to represent the United States at a United Nations agency in residence.

"I love people," she said. "I like everybody, and over the years, I just went from one cross-cultural situation to the next."

Betty retired in the 1980s, but wasn't ready to call it quits.

She attended many conferences dealing with civilian aeronautics and other governmental agencies. She later returned to Tunisia with the Peace Corps and also served for a year as director of the Supreme Court Historical Society at the request of Chief Justice Warren Burger.

"I had a United Nations and aviation background, which was a really unusual combination," Betty said.

It's hard to imagine two people with the backgrounds Dwight and Betty have are living quietly in our midst, but as Betty says, it's by design. A quick internet search will pull up a multitude of stories and interviews with Betty, including one tucked away in the Library of Congress. She was even named one of the 40 most influential women in aviation history.

But Betty turns down most interview requests these days. She and Dwight are hidden in rural Orange County, where they know a few of their neighbors, but prefer a much quieter existence.

"I've always had the most wonderful opportunities. Perhaps I made them from time to time, but those experiences are what led me into international and intercultural situations," she said.

Betty is a woman who admires determination. And she should - she's got enough of it. She also admires women's evolving role in society, but also offers sage advice:

"With all this freedom and liberty, there are responsibilities and things expected of us that haven't been expected of us before," she said. "We must treasure and respect those responsibilities, taking great care. ... I've run up against men time after time who didn't think the jobs I was doing were any place for a woman. ... But I've also had many, many men who were willing to give women the opportunity. What we do with these opportunities is up to us. I chose to take each one offered to me."

Aviation remains dear to Betty and Dwight. In fact, when he was in his 80s, after his vision and high blood pressure were corrected, Dwight applied to get his old job back of being a crop duster.

"Can you imagine trying to get my job back when I was in my 80s? They were kind about it, but they didn't take me back," Dwight said. "I always enjoyed crop dusting because I felt like I was getting paid for having fun. It was kind of like being a civilian fighter pilot."

As a child, Betty recalls seeing her first plane land in Las Vegas, Nevada, when her father took her there to see the new airport, which is now a part of Nellis Air Force Base.

"I've often said to people I didn't decide then I wanted to fly, I just knew then that aviation was always going to be a part of me," she said.

And it was.


Source: The Times-Mail


Information from: The Times-Mail, http://www.tmnews.com

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