A Revolutionary Woman

A Revolutionary Woman

Phyllis "Toby" Felker, a former WASP and Springfield business owner, died July 22.

From her days as a pioneer for women in military aviation through her successful printing career in Springfield and active participation in the renovation of her adopted home town, Phyllis "Toby" Felker believed in living life.

Felker, who died in her Springfield home after a long battle with cancer on Saturday, July 22, was trained as a member of the Women's Air Service Pilots program during World War II — the first women to serve as pilots in the armed services, according to her youngest son, Frank Felker.

"As a little girl growing up in Detroit, my mom and her family would often go to airshows," said Frank Felker. Not only did she gain a life-long love of aviation from these shows, which later inspired her to become a pilot, she went for several rides in bi-planes, something considered very daring at the time.

After graduating from Stevens University, Toby Felker took a job as a secretary with an accounting firm and soon became bored. She began taking lessons to obtain her private pilot's license.

"She told me that, in order to get her license, she had to fly an open-cockpit plane upside down with both arms dangling over her head so her instructor could see them," Frank Felker said.

At the same time, the Army was looking for women to serve as pilots, ferrying men and planes that had been shot down or left behind, he said.

One of only 1,067 women selected for the Women's Air Service Pilots Program, Toby Felker and her fellow WASPS served during World War II, from February 1944 to May 1945, when they were "unceremoniously released" and the program ended, Frank Felker said.

The women were "not given so much as train fare to get home," he said.

It was not until President Jimmy Carter enacted legislation in 1977 to give them benefits that the military acknowledge the WASP pilots as veterans, he said.

In 1945, she married Alex Felker, an United States Air Corps officer. The two traveled around the world together, and each of their three children were born on different continents: oldest son Alex was born in Shanghai, daughter Sally was born in Springfield after the couple purchased a home there, and Frank Felker was born in Germany.

The Felkers and their young family settled in Springfield for good in 1961, and Toby Felker took a job as an executive secretary for the CEO of a company, Frank Felker said.

While searching for a copy machine that would give her a "decent copy" one day, she realized that Springfield needed "a store that sold copies," Frank Felker said.

On Feb. 22, 1974, shortly after she and Alex Felker divorced, Toby Felker opened Copy Right Printing, without any prior business or printing experience and as a single mother.

"The first few years, we struggled," Frank Felker said. But Toby Felker never complained.

"She never whined, she never griped about any of it," he said. "She just did the best she could."

He never felt like he missed out on anything either: His mom continued to take him to Washington Senators games for his birthday, even in the first years when making ends meet was difficult, he said.

When Frank Felker returned home with a business degree from college, he helped his mother run the company, which turned a $1 million profit in 1996, a year before the company was sold, he said.

After retiring, Toby Felker became involved in the Central Springfield Area Revitalization Council, working to revitalize the community she adopted as home.

Al MaCaloon said he first met Toby Felker in 1985, when the revitalization council was just starting.

"She had lots of energy and a very peppy personality that made her very easy to work with," MaCaloon said. "She was highly admired, was always willing to discuss issues and try to work them out."

Longtime friend Bobbie Mae Johnson used to frequent Copy Right for her own business and became friends with Toby Felker as their "paths crossed often," she said.

"Toby had a great sense of compassion and community spirit," Johnson said. "She loved life. When I last saw her, she looked like the same person as when I met her many years ago."

Her love of Springfield was apparent to Nancy-jo Manney, executive director of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

"Even though she left the corporate world, she never left Springfield," Manney said. "She had a great heart and enthusiasm for the midtown revitalization project."

Current CSPARC president Skeeter Scheid said Toby Felker served as the treasurer of the revitalization council for several years, but the women knew each other from events at Lee High School in the 1980s.

"She was always there, right in the middle of everything," Scheid said. "She had the best outlook on everything, always really positive."

Toby Felker also had "a really outrageous sense of humor. She just sparkled," Scheid said. "She'll be really missed. It's not the same without her here."

With Toby Felker's death, "we've lost an amazing woman," said Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee.) "Toby Felker was a patriot, a successful business leader and a person who spent her life giving back to the community."

Kauffman said he wishes he'd had the opportunity to hear more stories about her time as a WASP.

"She lived an amazing full life and did it with humility and grace, and that's not something that's easily replaced," he said.

Frank Felker said that it wasn't until his mother became very ill that he realized how strong she had been all her life.

"She had to be strong to get through WASP training and I knew that, but it never occurred to me how much she'd been through," he said. "Even in the end, she was in terrible pain and she never once complained."

Toby Felker is survived by her three children, Alex Felker of Sanibel Island, Fla.; Sally Beecroft of Springfield, and Frank Felker of Springfield, along with her sister, Mary Frances Higbie of Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich.

A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 19 at 2 p.m. at the Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in Burke, and burial will take place with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery on Monday, Aug. 21 at 10 a.m.