United Methodist Church Nurtured Hero Pilot

February 19, 2009

A UMNS Feature

By John A. Lovelace*

Feb. 17, 2009

His Sunday school teacher 50 years ago at Waples Memorial United Methodist Church in Denison, Texas, remembers him as Chesley.

His sister refers to him by his middle name, Burnett. A prominent female clergy member of the United Methodist North Texas Annual Conference knew him as Burney, her rival for first-chair flute in the Denison High School band.

Since Jan. 15, much of the world knows him as the pilot of "The Miracle on the Hudson" - the pilot who made a successful emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York's Hudson River with no loss of life.

Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III and his four-person crew were given keys to New York City by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Feb. 9, a day after "60 Minutes" on CBS broadcast the crew's first televised interview. Crew members also were cheered as heroes during the Feb. 1 pre-game ceremonies for Super Bowl XLIII.

On Jan. 23 -- coincidentally, her brother's 58th birthday -- Mary Wilson welcomed two journalists into her comfortable Plano, Texas, home -- one from her family's church, Christ United Methodist Church in Plano, and the other from the conference newspaper.

Mary (at left), two years younger than Burnett, was savoring a comparative respite from the media blitz that surged into her life after word got out that she was a hero's sibling. A University of Texas graduate and professional actuary, she works partially from her home.

Savvy now to things media people seem to want, she shared her mother's scrapbook, along with other family photos and documents; gave unhurried, temperate responses to questions she had answered many times; and, at the request of the church journalists, offered insights into the Sullenberger family that might not occur to other media.

Mary and Burnett were born in Denison, as were their parents - Chesley Burnett Sullenberger, Jr. and Pauline Hanna Sullenberger -- and both sets of grandparents -- Russell Samuel Hanna and Kate Whitehurst Hanna (maternal) and Chesley Burnett Sullenberger and Florence Burge Sullen Berger (paternal).

The Hannas were members of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Denison. "I believe," she continued, "that the Sullenbergers were members of Waples, but not 100 percent sure. I know that my father considered himself Methodist when he married my mom. She joined my dad's church, so we were all members of Waples."

The scrapbook yielded, among other jewels, Burnett's certificate of church membership. Pauline Sullenberger taught for several years in the Waples day school.

'Such a sunny disposition'

Norma and Bob Hauser are longtime members of Waples United Methodist Church and she remembers "Chesley" at about age 8-12 years old when she taught Sunday school at Waples and worked with the children's music program. She was also friends with Sullenberger's mother.

"He was such a lovely boy, with blond hair and such a sunny disposition. He was always very well behaved and did everything asked of him. He was a pleasure to be around and very likeable," Norma Hauser said.

Another recollection comes from one of his Denison contemporaries, the Rev. Carole Somers-Clark, vice president of pastoral services for the Dallas-based Methodist Health System. They attended most of junior high and high school together, although her family moved away during 10th and 11th grades.

"Burney was 1st chair flute - I was 2nd chair (most of the time!) He was always very disciplined with practice and studies. I flew with him in one of the prop planes when we were seniors," Somers-Clark said. "I don't remember being scared or my parents objecting to my climbing into a little bitty plane with a boy my age as pilot."

She had forgotten he was active in Methodist Youth Fellowship with her until receiving a request for this article. Walter Underwood was senior pastor at the time, and Eldon Chester was the lay youth leader, Somers-Clark recalls. (In photo at left, Wilson holds her brother's 1962 certificate of church membership.)

"I vividly remember a 'talent show' where Burney (holding a big paper lollipop) sat in a chair and I skipped around lip-syncing to a pop song called 'my boy - Lollipop.' I am pretty sure we were in high school," Somers-Clark said.

"I guess my recollection illustrates that no matter what we offer kids in UMYF youth activities, it can help produce people who grow up to be pilots who save lives and ordained elders of the church!"

Unrecognized heroes

Mary Wilson is amused by the small-world coincidences behind the two intersections involving her family and the Underwoods. She remembers the Rev. (later Bishop) Walter Underwood as a "very warm" pastor of Waples Memorial Methodist whose family came to dinner at the Sullenbergers' home 10 miles outside Denison on a bluff overlooking Lake Texoma.

Mary also remembers her classmate, Wally Underwood, and twins Ronnie and Donnie, three years older than her brother. Today one twin, the Rev. Don Underwood, is her pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Plano.

In his Jan. 22 e-mail newsletter to parishioners and friends, Underwood wrote, "Ordinarily, I would not write about an event that has been as well publicized as this one, but today I make an exception for the simple reason that Captain Sullenberger is connected to both Methodism and Christ Church. He grew up in Denison . . . and graduated from Denison High School three years behind me. My father was his pastor, and he attended the same Methodist Youth Fellowship that I attended.

"On Monday I discovered that one of our Christ Church members, Mary Wilson, is the sister of Sully Sullenberger. Mary also grew up at Waples Memorial United Methodist Church in Denison. Reminiscing with her about Denison, she made the comment that both she and Sully consider my father to have been their 'childhood pastor.' Now, 46 years later, I am her pastor.

" . . . I would maintain that there are more Captain Sullenbergers around than we typically recognize. There are many who, on a daily basis, help to create 'good news' with acts of kindness and service and sometimes unrecognized heroism. At Christ Church we call it simply 'Loving God, Serving Others...Transforming Lives.' That is the message that the Captain and his family grew up with, and we are pleased that the long tentacles of the Methodist connection have been found in one of the great stories of our day."

As for their youthful activities at Waples Church, Mary remembers that Burnett had a nice voice, sang in the youth choir and had at least one solo in a worship service. She says they both were active in MYF and recalls two kinds of events -- one known as "Mystery Ramble," the other "Up with People."

Always loved planes

Because the Sullenbergers lived in the country, Burnett and Mary as children had only each other as playmates. She says that he, as "big brother," would let her choose what game they would play so long as it was from his preferred list.

She says he was funny, sociable and popular and never intended to do anything in life but fly. As their mother's collections attest, Burnett showed early talent for drawing -- so long as the object was an airplane.

Dr. Sullenberger, their father, was a Navy veteran who hoped that Burnett would go to the U.S. Naval Academy. But potential life as a pilot won out when Congressman Ray Roberts appointed him to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Dr. and Mrs. Sullenberger had a travel trailer then, and the entire family visited the Air Force cadet more than once, including, naturally, his graduation in 1973. Dr. Sullenberger, a dentist with offices in downtown Denison, died in 1995, his wife in 1999.

After graduation, Sullenberger flew for the Air Force for six or seven years, then took his first job as a commercial pilot in 1980 with Pacific Southwest Airlines. That line merged into US Airways, for whom he was flying on Jan. 15.

'I will ask him eventually'

Mary Wilson first learned of the emergency landing from television when she got home about 3 p.m. that day. She immediately called Burnett's wife, Lorrie, at their home in Danville, Calif., and learned that Burnett had called her and said he was all right. "So I knew he was safe."

She said she last saw her brother a few months ago when he called, as he occasionally did, between flights at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Mary, her husband, Alan, a quality engineer at Texas Instruments, and their son, Alex, 14, joined him for a meal and visit.

Sister and brother have talked on the phone several times since Jan. 15, but, she says, "I haven't gotten up the nerve to ask him how he felt during the emergency. I will ask him eventually."

Does she think he intends to continue flying? "I haven't asked. Certainly not in the near future."

Was she relieved when examination of the flight's "black boxes" confirmed her brother's version of what happened, namely that the plane's engines shut down after the plane hit a flock of birds?

"For me that was non-news. If you knew my brother you'd believe whatever he said."

Among Sullenberger's publicized recognitions was his and Lorrie's being invited to the presidential inauguration. Afterwards, on invitation, they attended one of the 10 inaugural balls that President Barack and Michelle Obama graced.

Backstage, the Sullenbergers stood in a receiving line. As the President and the pilot shook hands, Capt. Sullenberger said, "It is an honor to meet you." The President responded, "No, the honor is mine." He then suggested to Michelle: "Why don't you give him a hug?" She did.

Mary Wilson's family and her brother's family of four - including daughters Kate, 16, (named for her maternal great-grandmother) and Kelly, 14 - haven't gotten together in five years. They stay in touch by e-mail and phone.

But at their next reunion, little sister has some questions for her big brother -- and a few hugs of her own to bestow.

*Lovelace is editor emeritus of the Dallas-based United Methodist Reporter.