Rockford pilot goes viral just in time for Women’s History Month

Libby Gardner makes the rounds on Facebook. Historians say she’s a Rockford native, and is one of 1,100 women to fly for WASP during World War II.
Libby Gardner.
Libby Gardner.(WIFR)
Published: Mar. 13, 2021 at 12:32 PM CST
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - “It’s just pretty incredible,” said RACVB Director of Destination and Development, Kristen Paul. “The history that comes from Rockford and the strong women that have always been here.”

Laura Furman is the Curator of Collections at Midway Village in Rockford. She was pleased to learn the story of Elizabeth “Libby” Gardner, who is featured on a mural downtown, was circulating area Facebook pages.

“There’s this wonderful mural of this young woman leaning out of the cockpit of a B-26 Bomber,” said Furman.

But Furman said many people don’t know that the mural of Gardner is based on a true story.

“They realized she was a Rockford native who had done something really groundbreaking,” said Furman.

Gardner was a 1939 Rockford High School graduate. The painting is based on a picture from 1943, where Gardner is operating a plane at just 22 years old. Furman said Gardner was one of only 1,100 women to fly for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II.

“These women were civillians,” said Furman. “They weren’t given military status at the time, even though they were the first women to fly military jets.”

Kristen Paul is the Director of Destination and Development with the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said the muralists chose to paint Gardner in 2018 because her strength was inspiring.

“They wanted to bring a concept to Rockford that showcased a strong woman from Rockford, but also ties in Rockford’s history,” Paul said.

Paul said Gardner’s story went viral on Facebook just in time to honor Women’s History Month.

“Every year we really find that it is highlighted because there’s so many women in Rockford that are just truly amazing,” said Paul. “and it goes all the way back to Rockford’s history.”

Gardner isn’t the first aviatrix to emerge from Rockford. Furman said Bessica Raich was also a native, and the first United States woman to solo an airplane in 1910.

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