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The Flying Scholar

How many careers can one woman have? Abigail Davis '72 would answer: As many as she wants.

Don’t joke about majoring in English or philosophy, contending that they don’t prepare anyone for a career, with Abigail Davis ’72. She has parlayed her double major into several fascinating careers.

Two of them are in academe and writing, and much of her work is based on historical events. Abigail is quick to credit family members and IC professors for fostering the lifelong love for learning that fuels both careers. “My family has always been very conscious of our history,” she notes. At IC she was influenced by many mentors, notably “English professor John Ogden, whom I absolutely revered, as did all his students, and philosophy professor Carol Kates, who was amazing.”

Without a specific career plan upon graduation, she moved to New Haven, Connecticut. “One of my pals had a house there, and her parents were going south for the winter, so I moved in,” she says. Abigail landed a job as legal assistant to a very successful trial lawyer. “He was a Columbia [University] type, brilliant but personally disorganized,” she laughs. “So I helped out by interviewing clients and preparing documents.”

One weekend she tried something that changed her life again. “I took an introductory flight,” Abigail says, “and was totally hooked.” She quickly outgrew single-engine planes. “I decided I wanted a corporate job.” She soon earned her credentials, including ratings for piloting multiengine jets. “Then I started pounding on doors,” she says. “It took a while. At the time there was only one woman in the country flying for corporations; it was a good-old-boy network, and of course I didn’t fit.”

Eventually she landed a job as a copilot with the Stauffer Chemical Company, which had three jets; she was the only female aviator. Two years later she was recruited by IBM in White Plains, New York. After two years there she decided she wanted to work for a major airline. “I knew I would grab the first opportunity that was offered,” she says. “I interviewed with TWA, National, Eastern, and United. Then Northwest said they wanted me in Minnesota, and I was on the payroll within a month.”

She is in the record books as the first female pilot hired by Northwest. That was in March 1979; the first woman to be employed as a pilot by a scheduled U.S. airline had been hired just six years earlier (Emily Howell Warner at Frontier Airlines). Abigail joined the recently formed International Society of Women Airline Pilots, and served as its president from 1984 to 1986.

After 14 years in the airline industry, Abigail had achieved captain status and was enrolled part-time in a master’s degree program in English at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, “just for my own interest, for fun,” she says. While doing research she stumbled across a Colonial-era “execution sermon” that inspired her to begin work on a nonfiction book. Execution sermons were preached by a minister before public executions; this one, from 1737, ran about two hours and was later published. It was delivered at the execution of an American Indian, a Pequot named Katherine Garret. “Such sermons were not uncommon, especially in cases of infanticide, such as this one, or any kind of sensational crime and death sentence,” Abigail explains. “This was before the advent of the American novel, so people read these sermons for interest. The sermon would be full of moral lessons that should be gleaned from the condemned person’s misspent life.”

Despite meticulous research, Abigail was unable to uncover the truth about who had murdered Garret’s child. So she turned her work into a novel and found a publisher for The Hanging of Katherine Garret: A Novel Based on the 1737 Trial of a Pequot Woman.

Things were good. Abigail was near the top of her profession and a published writer, looking forward to finishing her degree at her leisure. But health problems intervened, and she had to take early retirement from Northwest for medical reasons.

Forced to rethink her life, she secured an adjunct teaching appointment at the university, and found that she loved teaching as much as she loved flying and writing. But being an adjunct professor took a toll. “I wanted to be a full-fledged part of an academic community,” she says, “but I couldn’t get a full-time English teaching job without a Ph.D.”

Since 2002 Abigail has been a full-time doctoral candidate in English at the U of M, teaching part-time. Scholarships and fellowships helped fund her work editing the reprint of a long-out-of-print 1810 American novel by Jesse Lynch Holman, The Prisoners of Niagara, Or, Errors of Education. Her edition, forthcoming from Heritage Books, includes her introduction, notes, and bibliography. And she has presented papers at conferences with such intriguing titles as “Acceptable Promiscuity: A Comedy of Loose Morals in The Prisoners of Niagara (1810).” Her edition, forthcoming from Heritage Books, includes her introduction, notes, and bibliography.

Abigail is currently completing work on her dissertation, on leave from teaching. The pilot-turned-author and scholar looks forward to adding “doctor” before her name and finding a new academic appointment. She would like to spend more time back East, enjoying the cottage she is building on 45 Catskills acres left to her by a great-aunt, and learning more about her family history. “My cousin and I are going to make a genealogical survey trip this summer, check out mysterious grave sites, and write down the stories of those who remember. We’ll be building on documents that my mother and another cousin put together,” she says.

“History is events,” Abigail notes, “but it’s people, too. I see it all as an organic whole, how the actions of individuals make a difference to historical events.” That’s true, whether one is propelling events, witnessing them, recording them, interpreting them, or using them as teaching tools. Or all of the above, like Abigail Davis herself. 

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