LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — When Mary Pat Shely was young, she taught herself to fly in a Piper Cub bought for her by her father. On Sunday, she was given a Congressional Gold Medal for her service in the Civil Air Patrol during World War II.
The World War II members of the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the United States Air Force, were awarded the gold medal as a group in 2014. Since then, the organization has worked to find the surviving members of the patrol who served during World War II.
More than 75 years after she joined the patrol in 1942, current Civil Air Patrol members, family members and neighbors gathered at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky to watch Shely receive the medal from Andy Barr, U.S. Representative for Kentucky's Sixth District.
"This deserved and distinguished award did not, in the case of the Civil Air Patrol, come without pain or sacrifice," Barr said Sunday. "By the end of World War II, 65 Civil Air Patrol civilian aviators had paid the ultimate sacrifice helping to protect the shorelines of the United States and our merchant vessels against enemy submarine attacks, while actively saving the lives of countless Americans and our allies."
After Shely's service with the Patrol, she went on to be an award-winning athlete and had an accomplished teaching career, said Major Jill Smith said, historian for the Kentucky Wing of the Civil Air Patrol.
"On behalf of the citizens of the Sixth Congressional District of Kentucky, and on behalf of the United States Congress and a grateful nation, we sincerely thank you for your courageous service to your country during World War II and for the life you have chosen to live by teaching generations of Americans who came after you," Barr told Shely at Sunday's ceremony.
Shely has been very humble, almost secretive about what she did during her time in the patrol, said Jim Stewart, her fourth cousin.
Stewart and his wife, Gail, are among Shely's closest remaining relatives. In 1971, he visited Shely at her family farm in Clark County and has made a point to come down to see her every year since.
On Sunday, Jim and Gail Stewart were in from Muncie, Ind., to see Shely receive her medal.
"I've heard the stories throughout the years, but you never knew quite the depth and the extent of what she's actually done," Jim Stewart said. "She's very humble, and she doesn't like to be on the forefront, but she's one that very much deserves to be on the forefront because she's some done some amazing, amazing things. And to be able to serve the country during World War II, it's just amazing."
Shely is now in a wheelchair and those who know her said she may have had a hard time hearing some of the things that were said, but Jim Stewart said he knows what it meant to her.
"I know that age has come on with her, but I know deep down in her memory she remembers all of this and this means a lot to her," he said.
Though the medal was a long time coming, it was emotional for her family to see her service remembered.
"I think for us, we are able to see her history through her scrapbooks and all the wonderful things she's done in her life, but tonight actually is for her, and it's nice that she can be recognized," Gail Stewart said.
Shely still lives on her family's historic Kettle Springs Farm in Clark County and it is her desire to "live her full life out on the farm," Jim Stewart said.
Over the years, Shely has become an important member of her community and was given the Good Neighbor Award by the Southwest Clark Neighborhood Association in 2016.
"She is very much a pillar of our community and if you've gone to visit Pat over the years, one of the things she's absolutely most proud of is her Civil Air Patrol work, way back when she was 18 or 19 years old," said Deborah Garrison, the president of the neighborhood association.
Her history of flight is well known in the community, including one report that she may have once flown her plane under the Old Boonesboro Bridge, according to the Winchester Sun.