Honoring the Mercury 13 Women
May 12, 2007 * UW Oshkosh Spring Commencement

Before Sally Ride, Christa McAuliffe and Eileen Collins, courageous women were setting new records and conquering new horizons. Though largely unrecognized in history, the Mercury 13 women showed their determination, strength and bravery in the Space Race with accomplishments that paved the way for generations. The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is proud to recognize the pioneering spirit of these women with honorary Doctor of Science—honoris causa—degrees.


Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen

Gene Nora (pronounced Janora) Stumbough Jessen became interested in flight as a girl in Illinois, where she was a member of Civil Air Patrol. She learned as much as she could about airplanes and chose the University of Oklahoma so that she could take flight lessons while at college. She became a flight instructor and a commercial pilot and was hired by the flight school. As a university employee, she also could take classes for free, and she eventually earned her English degree.

Jessen heard about the research program going on at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, while serving on the University of Oklahoma faculty. She wrote a letter to Dr. Lovelace outlining her aviation and educational background, asking to be accepted. Jessen and Janey Hart, entering the program together, were the 24th and 25th women to undergo the physical exams and became inspirational partners. Though she was told she passed the tests, she never met Dr. Lovelace, nor was she told that she was in an astronaut training program, and so she always considered the experience research.

Since a new semester was starting at the same time as the continuing testing (fall 1961), Jessen quit her job to participate in Phase II. Only a few days later, the program was discontinued. She took a temporary job as a flight instructor until in 1962, she captured what at the time was (to her) the best possible job in aviation for a woman. She flew as a sales demonstration pilot for the Beechcraft factory in Wichita, Kansas. Initially, she flew as one of the Three Musketeers, an introductory formation flight through the contiguous 48 states over a 90-day period. The job evolved into additional ratings and flying the entire Beechcraft line. She met her husband Bob at Beechcraft, and they eventually migrated west to set up a Beechcraft dealership in Boise, Idaho.

Through the years, Jessen has remained active in aviation, serving on the Boise Airport Commission, as president of the Ninety-Nines, an international women’s flying group, and on various community boards. She has participated in the founding of two aviation museums and raised two children.

Download Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen commendation (pdf)