Mary Duggan Philbin died on April 16, 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, after a brief illness. She had a long and interesting life, beginning as a flight attendant during WWII for United Airlines, and then as an active Oak Park mother of seven delightful children.
At 97, she still kept up on the world, offering intelligent opinions with her characteristic wit and grace. Like all the corona victims, she was much more than a line in a death notice.
Born May 26, 1922, Mary and her two brothers, Jack and Bud, grew up on Mayfield Avenue in the Austin neighborhood, and attended St. Catherine of Siena grade school. Her parents, John and Bernadine Duggan, were Chicago Public School teachers. The friends Mary made “on her tricycle” were still friends eight decades later, as were her friends from Trinity High School, from which she graduated in 1939.
Mary attended Chicago Teachers College, but on the day she graduated in 1943, she went straight to apply for a job with United Airlines at a time when nothing was newer, more exotic, and more adventuresome than the burgeoning field of commercial air travel. She was a stewardess for ten years, starting out on DC-3s–propeller planes with 21 seats–and she traveled the world. In 1947, at the age of 25, she was asked to work with United to help Philippine Airlines resume operations following World War II. She took the 8,000-mile journey to Manila and landed knowing no one there, but cheerfully faced the challenge of training local women for new jobs in the airline industry.
In 1951, Mary became the first woman to serve as Chief of Stewardess Service for United Airlines for the Chicago Region, until she was forced to retire from that position after her marriage in 1953, due to what was then airline policy–married women could not fly. “I fought hard to keep my job,” she wrote later for the United stewardess alumni magazine, Clipped Wings, “Why couldn’t I be married? The men were, weren’t they?” But the no-marriage policy was not overturned until 1971.
In 1953, at St. Catherine of Siena Church, Mary, the world traveler, married the boy-next-door, John Fay Philbin–her Austin neighbor, Chicago Teacher’s College classmate, and her brother Jack’s best friend. Soon after, Mary and John moved into Oak Park’s Ascension parish, buying their first house on Clarence Avenue. In 1963, they moved to East Avenue and St. Edmund parish. There they raised seven children: Mimi, Marianne, John, Joe, Madeleine, Meg and Jim.
Mary and John loved raising a big family, especially in a neighborhood where big families were common. They started out in life along with many young couples raising large families and taking on the world to change it. They were both deeply committed to their Catholic faith, and spent years volunteering for the Cana Conference and the Christian Family Movement, through which they made many cherished friends.
They were staunch supporters of Catholic education, sending all seven children through Catholic grade school (Ascension and St. Edmund) and high school (Trinity and Fenwick). Mary created a welcoming home that happily took in all visitors and served as a refuge, snack bar, playroom, and gathering place to celebrate all manner of occasions or to simply watch old movies on TV. So many have shared memories of being welcomed by Mary and drawn into the love (and occasional chaos) of the Philbin household.
Mary and John were actively involved in the Oak Park community, where John served a term as Village President after retiring from a career with the Archdiocese of Chicago. Mary and John were married for 59 years, until his death in 2012.
With a gift for friendship, Mary stayed close to her Teachers College classmates through the years, as well as to the “ex-Stews” from United Airlines. When age began to creep up on her–but only slightly!–she moved into St. Mary’s Home in Lincoln Park, where she made fast friends with other residents. She had no lack of visitors and kept as engaged as ever with children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and many friends. She was always in-the-know regarding whatever was happening in the lives of her loved ones, and she kept up on current events–probably one of the few 97-year-olds who could both explain to her dinner companions what was going on in the impeachment hearings, and report to her grandchildren that Bruce Springsteen’s son had become a firefighter.
The staff at St. Mary’s cared for her expertly during all the years she was a resident, and kept her feeling safe, calm and loved in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis. Mary adored her family and was a treasured friend to many. Her generous spirit lives on and inspires those who remember with love her warmth, humor and kindness.
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