Ruth Rees Phillips was my mother. She was raised in San Antonio, Texas, where she met and married my father Duke Phillips II and began a ranching career that led them to Big Bend, Texas, the isolated llanos in Venezuela, and Northern Mexico to the Hacienda Sierra Hermosa ranch, where she lived for 23 years raising me and my three siblings.
She flew airplanes, something that women didn’t do very much back then. Having learned to fly after joining the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in the early forties during WWII, she was the chief pilot in our family, doing most of the flying in our red Cherokee Six on town runs (which would have taken five hours by truck) for the ranch commissary, our household, and any medical emergencies. There are a lot of stories and times flying that I remember.
Once was when the weather was a bit dodgy, she had a case of tonic water from town for a neighbor that she just dumped onto the end of their airstrip without turning the engine off and took back off home. As the neighbor, Laurie Lasater, tells it, “one evening, just minutes before dark, a plane landed on our airstrip as we were sitting on the porch with Tom and Jan Newsome enjoying a gin and tonic. We watched in awe when it stopped at the south end, and with the engine still running, a lady pilot jumped out, unloaded a box, jumped back into the plane, and waved to us as she took off again. It was Ruth dropping off a case of tonic water while hurrying home before dark. Of course, we told Tom and Jan that we had a charter flight deliver our tonic water every month.”
Another time I remember our neighbor Maxi called to tell us on the two-way radio that we needed to come get her because she had landed at his ranch due to the inclement weather at our ranch. When we arrived, she had a big smile on her face, being on her second scotch and soda, saying we were going to have fly the plane home, since she and Maxi were just having too good a time and she’d had a long day.
She organized and participated in an air race in Mexico, where she talked her neighbor into going with her. I remember the big splash she made in the local paper and my father telling the story afterward: “Not only was she a gringa – a white person, a foreigner, and a woman (in a man dominated culture) – and not only was she in an airplane waving at everyone with a great big wave as they taxied in at the end of the race, she was flying the damn thing.” He said the photographers all ran over to her plane, abandoning the rest of the participants, where she was surrounded.
Ruth was always up for everything. Always positive, she was the most empathetic person you would ever meet. To the children on the ranch besides us – there were 8 families at one time with 9-15 kids per family – she was their second mother. She was the doctor, the family counselor, the person everyone went to with any kind of problem. I remember after a fishhook went through the middle of my thumb, being given a tumbler of whiskey and a piece of wood to bite down on as the cook held me down while she cut it out. “Hold on, sweetheart, its almost over,” I remember her saying over and over, as she squinted down at her work.
I could go on forever, with the many stories and memories that make me so proud. But, most of all, I feel lucky. Many people benefited from being around her besides myself, not only from the example that she set but by the way she lived with courage, independence, and an ability to always see the other side.