When it comes to strong women, Homer has a former Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly president, city council members, scientists, business owners and teachers. They fly our planes, captain our boats and keep us physically, mentally and spiritually healthy. They cook our meals and make our morning coffee. They guide our lives and the lives of coming generations.
Wilma Strom Gregory is one of those women. A resident of Homer since 1958, a resident of the planet since 1918.
On Saturday, birthday greetings poured in from across the state and beyond, and friends and family joined Gregory for her 100th birthday party at McNeil Canyon Elementary School.
“She’s not one to give speeches and you won’t find her name in history books. But her life speaks louder than words,” said Burt Gregory, honoring his mother in his 2009 valedictorian speech at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College.
Born in Minnesota and raised on a farm, Wilma was an only girl with four older brothers. The family’s income came from selling cream and either selling or trading eggs for groceries.
“Sometimes we made 50 cents a week. There wasn’t much money, but we had plenty to eat,” she said of the family’s dependence on the “little bit of everything” produced on the farm.
Transportation was a horse-drawn wagon in the summer and a horse-drawn sleigh in the winter. For entertainment, the Stroms made their own.
“The Christmas before I was five, the folks bought a little accordion for all of us. By the next spring, I could play little nursery rhymes and Stephen Foster songs,” Wilma said.
She was 7 years old when she heard her first radio, one her brother, Charlie, had swapped some firewood to obtain. Wilma saw her first automobile when her oldest brother purchased one in his late teens. Airplanes were relatively new invention when she was captivated by sight of them flying above the farm.
“I toyed with the idea of being a stewardess, but I wasn’t in a location where it would have been very easy to follow through with that,” she said.
Wilma’s brothers were protective of their little sister, but also “did a lot of things to keep me from being spoiled,” she said. “When they did a lot of teasing, I’d go hide behind my mother and she’d walk away from me and say, ‘You’ve got to live with them so you might as well get along with them.’”
Her independent spirit wasn’t dampened by their protection and teasing.
“My brothers kind of kept me down in one way from things I wanted to do. In another way it was kind of scary to keep doing things, too, and I think I’ve done an awful lot more than anybody ever figured I would,” she said.
Completing high school in only three years, Wilma then found employment doing housework and helping in a post office run by her sister-in-law. The following spring, she took a job on a farm 150 miles from the family farm.
“My parents didn’t like it very much, but they didn’t refuse to let me go,” she said. “At that time, girls didn’t do very much on their own.”
Paid 50 cents a day, Wilma worked in the fields and did housework. A man also hired to work in the fields didn’t do housework, but was paid twice as much.
“That’s the way it was at that time,” she said of the inequality.
Moving to Minneapolis, she worked at Montgomery Ward until World War II and her interest in flying resurfaced. Wilma enrolled in an aircraft school in Nebraska, and learned to read blueprints and make parts for planes. Moving to California, she worked with North American Aircraft, a company manufacturing small parts for airplanes. Returning to Nebraska a couple years later, she continued to work in the aircraft industry, inspecting B26 and B29 planes for Martin Aircraft Modification Center.
After a widespread call for medical personnel during World War II, Wilma joined the WAC — Women’s Army Corps. A short six months later, she had completed her training, but the war ended and she was discharged.
Always ready for something new, she set about opening her own business, a small gift shop, and pursuing her interest in flying.
“The guy I was going with was taking flying lessons and talked me into doing the same thing,” she said.
She not only completed the lessons, but also secured a pilot’s license.
In 1947, Wilma’s brother, Charlie Gregory, and his family began planning a move to Alaska and persuaded her to join them. When it didn’t happen soon enough to suit her, she headed north on her own. Arriving in Anchorage that July, Wilma found an office job with CAA, Civil Aeronautics Authority, forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration, within two weeks. In August, she met Arthur Gregory, who had come to Alaska from New York 10 years earlier in search of gold. The couple married in December.
“I think both of us were old enough to know what we wanted,” Wilma said of the short engagement.
A 160-acre homestead on the outskirts of Anchorage became home. The family grew to include daughters Janice and Gayle, and sons Jim and Steve. In 1958, they relocated to Homer, bought a 160-acre homestead and turned a chicken coop into their first residence. Their fifth child, Burt, was born in Homer.
The family’s plan was to raise and sell strawberries, but the strawberries they purchased were too costly to process, earning them only $200 that first year. The janitorial business Wilma’s husband opened was a success, however.
A move out of state occurred between then and now, but Alaska drew the Gregorys back, first to Juneau and then to Homer. Gregory and her husband built a home on East End Road where she has continued to live since his death 25 years ago. Her children — Janice, Gayle, Jim and Burt — live in Alaska. Steve died in 1976. Her family has grown to include six grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
Asked what she considers her most exciting accomplishments, the 100-year list is full.
“Each thing I did gave me more confidence. One time when I was home, probably when I was thinking about going to California or coming to Alaska, I made the comment to Mother that she probably thought I was crazy to do all those things. She thought a little while and then said, ‘I wish I’d have had your chances,’” Wilma said not only of her opportunities, but also where her decisions have led.