Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2019 Issue
WILLMAR, MINN. – Mary Jane Rice, 99, of Willmar, Minnesota, passed away July 17, 2019. She was born to Agda and Guy Leasman in Hector, Minn., on August 29, 1919. She married John L. Rice on February 14, 1946, in Willmar, and together they raised two daughters and established themselves as prominent fixtures in aviation and their local community.
Mary Jane’s lifelong passion for flying began as a teenager. She earned her private pilot certificate in 1940 and soon became one of the first women in the state of Minnesota to hold a commercial pilot certificate. As a new pilot, Mary Jane was the only female member of the Hector Flying Club and a charter member of the Minnesota Chapter of the international organization of women pilots, the Ninety-Nines.
In 1945, Mary Jane and John founded Willmar Air Service, Inc. Together, they managed the airport and operated their business, with Mary Jane ultimately logging 63 years in the office. In 1964, Mary Jane’s contributions to local aviation earned her the first “Mrs. Aviation” title from the Minnesota Aviation Trades Association (MATA). Mary Jane – along with John – was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 1994. She ultimately joined the ranks of Amelia Earhart and the Wright brothers with an induction into the International Forest of Friendship, a living memorial dedicated to the world history of aviation, in Atchison, Kansas.
Beyond her love of flying, Mary Jane was drawn to water. She spent countless hours combing the beaches of Sanibel Island, Florida, with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. At home, she cherished her time at Green Lake.
Mary Jane Rice will be remembered for her pioneering nature, deep curiosity and keen interest in the world around her.
Mary Jane was preceded in death by her husband, John. She is survived by her daughters and their spouses, Janet and Bruce Jaeger, Laurie and Steve Schwarz, and her grandchildren and their spouses, some of whom are enjoying successful careers in aviation.
Memorials are preferred to Bethel Lutheran Church, 411 Becker Avenue SW, Willmar MN 56201.