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Coles Phinizy
March 12, 1973
It used to be that she could do nothing right. Cooking, gardening, swimming or driving—she was prepared to foul up anything down to earth. But a sky-high proposition was something else
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March 12, 1973

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

It used to be that she could do nothing right. Cooking, gardening, swimming or driving—she was prepared to foul up anything down to earth. But a sky-high proposition was something else

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Once she starts rummaging through all the failures of her past, 47-year-old Mary Gaffaney of South Miami, Fla. is almost unstoppable. Like a miser fingering coins, Mary loves to count and recount the many ordinary ways that she has been a flop.

Mary Gaffaney is a mediocre cook of long standing. Bursting with sardonic pride, she says, "After years of work my chicken-noodle soup by Campbell is excellent. Tonight at home I will prepare a seven-course dinner—seven pieces of Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken." In a promotion scheme in Miami, Mary was once named Cook of the Week. When she was interviewed on television, the best advice she could summon for aspiring chefs was "If at first you don't succeed, do not be discouraged." Subsequently when Mary was invited to a gathering of eminent cooks, her mother, Letty Tracy, made a meringue pie for her to take as a credential. Alas, the day of the big get-together was rainy. Before Mary, super-cook, had a chance to impress her peers, somebody misplaced a pair of galoshes on top of her pie.

As a gardener Mary also fast loses heart. The one-story home that she occupies with her husband Charlie, her 84-year-old mother and three dogs, two the size of small moose, is garnished with palms and subtropical shrubbery, but none of it is Mary's doing. "Someday maybe I will get a green thumb," Mary says, reveling in her incompetence, "but as yet I have never planted anything that grew."

Since her grammar school days Mary has not had the time or the desire for ordinary sports. She grew up on the soggy tip of Florida but has no love for water. She swims only well enough to keep from drowning immediately. She gave league bowling a fling for a few months and once scored 198, but is best remembered for her gutter ball.

Mary has been driving a car since 1945 with no ill effects. Still, she maintains she is a hack: after 28 years she cannot get her car into a tight parking spot without laboring at it for 10 minutes. When she first drove an old Ford at the age of 18, she was afraid to turn left across traffic. Instead, she would drive a block beyond and make three consecutive right turns to get on the proper heading. During her driver's test the examiner asked her to turn left across traffic. Mary stalled in midstream. When the examiner told her to park parallel on a street devoid of other vehicles, Mary missed the curb by a car's width. The examiner got out and, after pacing off the distance from the car to the curb, said, "Lady, if you got the nerve to come down here and try to get a license the way you drive, I guess I got enough nerve to let you have one."

Mary's older brother Jack was an academic whiz who usually made dean's list at MIT. Mary was a scholastic dud. As a high-schooler in Allapattah, Fla. she made the National Honor Society, but only, she insists, because she took crip courses. "I never took anything hard like chemistry or physics," she remembers. "I took basic math and first-year algebra. I took typing, but I can hardly type. I tried Spanish but dropped it. I don't even speak English well."

Mary's many failures on this earth—even as exaggerated by her—are easy to explain. To put it tritely, Mary does not have her two feet on the ground. She is an aviatrix—one of the world's best aerobats—and since her senior high school year her head has been in the clouds.

In the past 26 years Mary has logged nearly 16,500 flying hours. Most of her air time has been spent in an ordinary way—teaching. She is a qualified instructor in propeller craft, helicopters and sailplanes. Since 1955 she has served as co-proprietor, chief instructor, office manager and mother confessor of the Kendall Flying School at the Tamiami Airport on the western edge of Greater Miami. More than 5,000 students have passed through the portals of Mary's school. Nearly 1,500 of them have gone on to get their transport pilot's rating and are now flying prop and jetliners on commercial routes.

Small planes like the Cessnas and Piper Apaches in which Mary now instructs are forgiving creatures. A pilot can be a trifle sloppy in them and get by. Despite this, Mary is stuffily old-fashioned in her belief that a pilot's technique should always be clean and neat, never begging the limits of his craft. Perhaps, as she claims, Mary is not capable of parking an automobile without a lot of backing and filling, but when she flies a plane she is surgically precise.

In the course of teaching safe and sane flying, Mary also has managed to enjoy a whoopsy-doopsy second life. Her avocation and overriding passion is aerial acrobatics. There are many aviators and aviatrixes with teaching credentials equal to hers, but in the refined and giddy art of aerobatics there is no woman in the world (and very few men) quite as good as Mary.

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