Dorothy Gregory-Watkins caught the “flying bug” at age 9, after receiving her first lesson at a local fair in 1927.
Her interest in flying led the Lockport resident to obtain her pilot’s license and to enter into seven years of service with the Civil Air Patrol Service, performing local search-and-rescue missions and doing ice patrol on the Great Lakes to keep shipping lanes open for war supplies during World War II.
On Jan. 21, Gregory-Watkins was awarded a posthumous CAP Congressional Gold Medal for her service during the war — the highest civilian honor that Congress can bestow.
Gregory-Watkins, a mother of eight, died on Christmas Day 2014 at the age of 96. Thirty of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended the Civil Air Patrol military ball at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens to accept the honor on her behalf.
Darcee Rae Hughes, Gregory-Watkins’ daughter, described her mother as “determined, adventurous and curious.”
“She had quite a life, and at that time, quite a life for a female,” Hughes said.
Gregory-Watkins acquired her solo pilot’s license and her private pilot’s license by 1942. After she took her initial flying test in Lockport, flight authorities in Buffalo made her come out to the city to take it again.
“They were convinced that she passed because she knew someone,” Hughes said.
Gregory-Watkins served in the CAP under the Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1949. She attained the rank of second lieutenant in Kenmore Squadron 2 and represented the Civil Air Patrol at encampments, parades and events during the war. On Independence Day in 1944, she demonstrated a Bell helicopter at the Buffalo Civic Center in front of 42,000 spectators.
After the war, Gregory-Watkins also acquired her commercial license rating.
She continued flying after her days with CAP, landing at Graf Field (which is now Willowbrook Golf Course), Lee Field (now Ray Lee Little League Fields) and the Barker air strip.
She married Lloyd Watkins, who served in the U.S. Army in the 82nd Airborne Division, in 1949.
The propeller from her plane hung on a wall in her home until the day she died. The propeller now belongs to Hughes’ niece, who also became a pilot.
In 2014, Gregory-Watkins was honored as a keynote speaker by the WNY CAP, according to Capt. Brian Wells, commander of CAP Niagara Falls Composite Squadron 1.
“She said in her speech, ‘This will always remind me of a time in my life when I had the time of my life’,” Hughes said. “She always loved flying.”
Wells contacted Gregory-Watkins’ family this past June to notify them of the award.
“The family had her uniform, her logbook, and a whole display of different items from the years when she was involved,” Wells said.
Legislation was signed into effect in 2013 authorizing the Congressional Gold Medal for over 200,000 men and women who served in the CAP during the war years.
CAP was founded on Dec. 1, 1941, six days before the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.