BY Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Ninety-three-year-old Jane Ralston is a pioneering female pilot. Her Presentation Academy classmate, Sister of Charity of Nazareth Margaret Hohman, 92, took part in the 1973 Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam war.
But as the two former high school classmates chatted during a recent reunion at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth motherhouse in Nazareth, Ky., they were so modest, one would never guess their accomplishments.
More than seven decades have passed since the two played on the same basketball team at Presentation Academy. Following graduation from Presentation in 1940, the friends attended Nazareth College — now Spalding University — from which they both graduated with degrees in chemistry.
Since then, life has led the women along very different paths.
During an interview at the motherhouse late last month, the pair noted that they both worked as chemists at the start of their careers, before pursuing their vocations.
Ralston, a member of St. Louis Bertrand Church, said she always knew she wanted to fly planes for a living, despite knowing that such a job wasn’t typical for women back then. She went on to become a commercial pilot and a flight instructor.
She recalled that long before her career took shape, she had her heart set on attending Presentation Academy, because of the many sports the school offered. She convinced her parents Presentation was the right choice by pointing out that tuition was a dollar cheaper than at the competing school.
In 1944 after graduating from Nazareth College, Ralston put her chemistry degree to use, and worked to save enough money to attend flight school, she explained.
She worked as a chemist at several companies, including Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Seagrams Distillery, where she helped with the production of ethanol during World War II.
Ralston said she never gave much thought to the fact that flying planes wasn’t a conventional career for women at the time.
“I just did what I wanted to do,” she said. “I thought airplanes and the people who flew them were the greatest things.”
She never set foot inside an airplane till the day she took her first flying lesson at age 22. But, she said, she didn’t need the instructor’s advice to “relax.” “I wasn’t nervous,” she said.
Her first job as a pilot was at Bowman Field in Louisville — one of the nation’s oldest operating general aviation airports — where she flew people across the city on tours. She later became a flight instructor there.
In the 1960’s, she flew as a commercial pilot for Central American Airways, transporting passengers and packages from coast to coast.
In 1962, she was one of 50 female pilots who took part in the “Powder Puff Derby” women’s air race from California to Delaware. Ralston said she placed 14th.
The Aero Club of Louisville — a private aviation club established in 1922 — honored Ralston earlier this year with the Aero Club Lifetime Achievement Award for being the first female flight instructor in the city.
In a 2009 news story featuring Ralston, WAVE 3 reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) honored the veteran pilot with its Wright Brother’s Master Pilot Award for 50 or more years of safe piloting.
Ralston was the only woman in Kentucky to receive the award and one of only three Kentuckian pilots of either gender to receive it, according to the story.
Her friend and classmate, young Margie Hohman, became a Sister of Charity of Nazareth in 1945. Sister Hohman also earned a doctoral degree in chemistry.
She’s been a voice for social change ever since and represented her religious community at the Paris Peace Talks to end the war in Vietnam back in 1973. She also submitted testimony before two Congressional committees, advocating for a ban on nuclear weapons testing.
During her years at Presentation Academy, Sister Hohman said many people told her she should consider becoming a nun. She said during those early years she felt no vocation for religious life.
Instead she filled her years at the girls’ high school excelling in math and science. She loved sports and played on the basketball, volleyball and field hockey teams.
After graduating from Nazareth College with a degree in chemistry, she was hired as a chemist at a rubber company. Her career testing chemicals for rubber was short lived, as her call to religious life grew, she said.
“I remember attending Mass the Sunday before Christmas,” she said. “During the homily the priest kept repeating the phrase ‘rejoice in the Lord always.’ ”
“I remember thinking, ‘If the Lord wanted me to be a nun, that would be rejoicing in the Lord always,’ ” said Sister Hohman.
Shortly after joining the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, she said, she instantly wrestled with doubts.
“During my first three months at Nazareth I prayed that I would get sick, so I would be sent home,” Sister Hohman recalled with a laugh.
Obviously she persevered.
Sister Hohman became a teacher and initially taught in Kentucky, New Orleans and Virginia. She also earned her doctoral degree in chemistry from St. Louis University.
In the midst of teaching and studying, she said, she felt called to work on behalf of the poor. In the 1960’s, Sister Hohman became increasingly active in working for social justice.
She took part in local marches for civil rights and started a women’s group, which met monthly to discuss and educate members on various social issues.
She recalled traveling to Kansas City to take part in a meeting against the Vietnam war. There, she said, participants were encouraged to bring about systemic change.
“People didn’t think nuns should be trying to change the systems,” she recalled.
This didn’t deter her.
In 1971, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she was one of the founding members of Network, the Catholic social justice lobbying group still in existence today.
She was one of 47 other sisters from different religious communities working for social change. Part of her responsibility, she explained, was to educate the sisters on the social issues of the time. Network also lobbied for peace between Palestine and Israel.
In 1973, Sister Hohman was chosen to attend the Paris peace talks.
But given her modesty, Sister Hohman still can’t tell anyone why she was chosen. She simply notes that she believes in living by St. Vincent’s teaching to “do what is put before you.”
Decades later, as Ralston and Sister Hohman reminisced in the drawing room of the motherhouse, neither friend seemed surprised by the path the other took.
Instead, they discussed plans to get together with their few remaining classmates.