It’s not about where or how you start. It’s about where and how you finish.
Let me pause for a moment to note the recent passing of Eleanor Joyce Toliver-Williams. But it’s her life that was truly noteworthy for a couple of reasons, the first of which has to do with travel.
Mrs. Toliver-Williams was the first black American woman ever to be certified in the United States as an air traffic controller.
You can read her obituary here.
Being the first African-American woman entrusted as a controller by the Federal Aviation Administration would by itself would be achievement enough for a lot of folks, but not her.
Mrs. Toliver-Williams went on to become the first African-American woman to run what’s known as an Air Route Traffic Control Center.
Each of America’s 22 “centers,” as they’re known in FAA jargon, controls a chunk of US airspace covering hundreds or thousands of square miles, and has hundreds or thousands of flights passing through it 24/7, which gave Mrs. Toliver-Williams a fearsome responsibility every time she came to work.
Even that, however, doesn’t quite give you the full picture.
The Cleveland center that she ran in Oberlin, OH just happens to be officially the busiest such center in the United States, and possibly in the world.
If you flew anywhere within about a 500-mile radius of Cleveland during the last quarter of the 20th century, anywhere over or near the states of Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, this lady had your life — and that of everyone else on the plane with you — in her hands.
The fact that you’re reading this now suggests that she did all right.
The other reason her life and career are worthy of note involves how she came to run the Cleveland center.
A native of Texas, she didn’t join the FAA until after moving from Texas to Alaska. She started with their Anchorage headquarters back in 1968.
As a janitor.
She worked her way up from that into the steno pool as a secretary. But she never stopped working, never stopped learning, never stopped pushing forward.
Until finally, she pushed her way right into an air traffic control tower.
Even then, it didn’t all happen immediately. She was certified by the FAA in 1971. It took another five years for her to get an actual assignment as a controller.
Sixteen years later, she was running the Cleveland center, where multiple controllers took charge of the air traffic, but all of whom answered to her.
There are a lot of reasons to be awed by this woman and the career she carved out for herself, but I’m struck most of all by the way it stands out in stark contrast to the attitudes of too many of our kids.
You know, the ones who consider things like working in a convenience store or a fast-food joint to be beneath them? The ones who want it all, but only if they can have it all now?
If life were like a game of baseball, we’d see that barest handful of us hit a homerun right off the bat, so to speak, while a few others seem to have been born standing on third base.
The rest of us have to bunt our way onto first, steal second and third, and then run like hell for a chance to score.
Sometimes, life gifts you with instant gratification, the homerun on your very first swing. More likely, you’re going to have to run the bases yourself like everyone else, one after the other, work like hell.
Just like she did.
I’m sure there were people in Anchorage who saw Mrs. Toliver-Williams with her mop and thought no further of it or her, figuring that was just her lot in life.
I’m equally sure that some of her friends in Texas said something to the effect of, “Child, why on Earth do you want to go all the way up to Alaska?”
She didn’t let the distance, the strangeness of a new environment, or anything else, deter her. She didn’t buy into anyone else’s pre-conceived idea of her destiny. She stayed on the grind and kept her eyes on the prize.
Until she got it.
Decades later, millions of air travelers in the United States, none of whom ever saw her face, heard her voice or knew her name, owe her their thanks because she got it.
That is a life worth noting, and a path to follow.
Eleanor Joyce Toliver-Williams was 74 years old.