Pioneer aviation historian Alice Marks dies at age 96

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Alice Marks (Photos courtesy Cliff Sanderlin)

Alice Eakle Marks, an aviation pioneer and historian who knew some of the early flyers of Transcontinental Air Mail aviation, died Dec. 12 at her daughter’s home in Edmonds. She was 96.

Alice grew up on emergency Air Mail fields west of Chicago in the “night-flying” section of the New York-to-San Francisco airmail corridor managed by her parents. Emergency airfields were built 25 miles apart to help pilots flying in open cockpits in flimsy bi-planes through darkness, rain and sometimes sleet and snow.

During the late 1920s and through the 1930s, she met many shivering and terrified pilots — some of them later deemed Air Mail heroes — whom her parents welcomed and warmed up with hot coffee and pancakes. As a teenager, Alice was a weather observer for the weather bureau with hourly reports to help pilots. Often she would climb the airfield tower to clean bugs from the anemometer or break ice off the windsock.

Alice Marks at age 15 climbing to clean an anemometer in 1936.

In 2010, Spokane aviation historian and aircraft restorer Addison Pemberton said at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, “The heroic Air Mail pilots got all the credit for modern aviation. However, if it hadn’t been for the support people on the ground like 15-year-old Alice Marks climbing towers in their nightgowns and making weather reports, aviation would not be what it is today.” At that event she met the President of Boeing Commercial Aircraft Scott Carson, who later sent her a book, handwritten letter, and photos of the Boeing 40.

Alice was a member of the Air Mail Pioneers, comprised mainly of former Air Mail pilots. She laid the groundwork for a national historic trail for U.S. Air Mail equivalent to the Pony Express National Historic Trail. In 2010, at age 89, she was treated to her first ride in a rare, restored Boeing 40-C mail/passenger plane similar to those she had sat in dreamily at her family’s emergency airfield in the late 1920s.

Alice Marks getting ready to take her first ride, at age 89, in a B-40.

During the Great Depression, her parents formed the “Eakle Family Band,” which accompanied a battleship replica float her father built. The float and band, made up of Alice and her seven younger siblings, toured in parades nationally to alert America to the threat of Adolph Hitler. Alice played the Sousaphone and trumpet. In 1936 they performed to great applause in Toronto.

As a teen and talented artist, Alice met two of her heroines: Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn, presenting them with portraits that she drew of each. Both expressed delight.

One of the pilots she met was Henry Marks, who joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. After Henry and Alice married in 1943, she followed him as a war bride to air bases around the U.S., where he trained B-17 crews.

Throughout the war, Alice drew a beautiful young woman in a sheer nightgown she called the “Shady Lady.” The realistic drawings were on roll-down window shades. She mailed them to lonely American soldiers serving around the world to boost their morale.

After the war, Hank and Alice raised their son Michael, and two daughters, Heather and Melissa, near the airport in Rochelle, Ill.

Alice Marks standing by a Curtis J-N 4 (Jenny), one of the earliest mail planes, at Flying Heritage Collection at Everett’s Paine Field.

Alice also had careers as an artist, elementary school teacher, and community activist. She illustrated five books on flying for nationally known aerobatic pilot Duane Cole of the Cole Brothers Airshow. She designed custom pop-up greeting cards for airline pilots, and produced beautiful paper dolls.

While fighting to protect rich Illinois farmland from a tollway, she became involved in local and state politics. She was subsequently appointed as a director of the Illinois Tollway Commission, the only woman at the time on any U.S. tollway authority in the U.S.

During the last decade, Alice lived primarily with her daughter Heather Marks and son-in-law Cliff Sanderlin in Edmonds. Following a stroke in 2013, she began living in Edmonds full-time. She was loved and adored by family, friends, caregivers and pets. She joined the Edmonds Senior Center, where she enjoyed ballroom dancing for several years. For the past three years, she has been delighted to live in the same home with her step grandson and step great grandchildren—four generations under one roof, from age 6 to 96.

Alice’s pilot son Michael was killed in an air crash in 1978. Others preceding her in death were her husband Henry in 2001; sisters Mavis Williams, Joey Clark, and Dea Eakle; brothers, John Eakle and David “Buck” Eakle; and also her beloved dog “Doggo” in 2015.

Alice is survived by her sisters Nancy Coss, of Surprise, Ariz., and Angela Finstad, of Minneapolis, Minn.; daughters Heather Marks (Cliff Sanderlin), of Edmonds, and Melissa Van Drew, of Chadwick, Ill.; her granddaughter Andrea Moore (Kyle Moore), and great-grandson Samuel Moore and great-granddaughter Evelyn Moore of Dekalb, IL; grandson Jeremy Van Drew of Chadwick, Ill.; step grandsons Galen Sanderlin of Bellingham and Joel Sanderlin of Edmonds; step-great-granddaughter Liluye Sanderlin and step-great-grandson Kaleb Sanderlin of Edmonds, and numerous nieces and nephews.

A funeral will be held for Alice in Rochelle, Ill. on Jan. 3, 2018.

Heather Marks and Cliff Sanderlin will hold a memorial service for friends and family at their home in Edmonds, from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018. For more information about Air Mail, visit her website at Airmailtrail.org.

 

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