Never Too Old: Ortega woman flies ‘friendly skies’ for 50-plus years

Never Too Old: Ortega woman flies ‘friendly skies’ for 50-plus years
Mary Dudley perched on Sam Brown

Never Too Old takes a look at senior residents who think out of the box or step out of their comfort zone. If you know someone who has a similar story to share, send information to

Mary Dudley Childress sees nothing unusual about the longevity of her 53-year career as an international flight attendant with Delta Airlines.

“In my family the women all worked until they were in their seventies,” said the Ortega resident, who also has a 23-year career at Underwood Jewelers. “I am very independent.”

After studying two years at the former Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus, Mississippi, Childress found, at age 20, she had limited resources and needed a job.     

“There wasn’t much for a small-town Mississippi girl in 1964. My uncle, who was a doctor, asked me if I wanted to work in a doctor’s office or fly,” she recalled. “I interviewed with Delta, and they asked me if I would mind missing church or if I minded serving liquor. I had to sign an affidavit that I wouldn’t marry, had never been married and would retire at age 32.”

Fortunately, company policy changed, allowing Childress to marry, and to continue working at age 73. “There is just something magical about working for an airline. I feel a lot of confidence in what I do. I can do it well, and I still enjoy it, so why not?” she asked.

Childress returned to college in her 40s, enrolling at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where she studied comparative religion, women’s studies, and German because she was flying to Germany frequently. “I’ve always needed structure and realize how important it is to learn,” said Childress. “Going back to school was a big boost for my self-esteem.”

An avid reader, Childress enjoys a wide range of topics, including India, Hinduism and philosophy. “I have very diverse interests,” she said.

Mary Dudley in uniform as a Delta Airlines flight attendant

Mary Dudley in uniform as a Delta Airlines flight attendant

Currently Childress’ flight schedule takes her to Johannesburg, South Africa two or three times a week. She has met many celebrities on her flights, including Fran Drescher, John Travolta, Mitt Romney, and former president George H.W. Bush. “He was on a flight from Barcelona. He came out of the bathroom and the sink was broken. He said, ‘I tried to fix it but couldn’t; I guess that’s above my pay grade,’” Childress recalled.

An amusing encounter she had with royalty was one with Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark. “There were body guards and me – he was flying incognito and was so charming. He changed from his jacket to a lighter weight sweater and I got to see the royal abs,” laughed Childress.

In 1992, friends set then-divorced Childress up on a blind date and, when told her date was a widower, she cracked, “Well, I hope he’s mobile.” It took her three years of dating to commit, but in 1995 Childress married Ortega resident and Lee High School Class of 1962 alumnus Bill Schmidt.

“I fell for her on that first date,” said Schmidt.

“I think Bill fell for me because I could pronounce Schmidt correctly,” said Childress, referring to her study of German. “Bill was a widower – his wife had been ill for a long time and I had been divorced a long time, so I guess I was scared,” she said. “But, I knew I wanted to keep flying and share that with Bill.”

The couple did travel together, often when Childress was working the flight.

“Bill was on a flight when I was working and a passenger called me over and said, ‘That man must be your husband.’ I asked how she knew and she said, ‘You wouldn’t let him have any dessert and every time you walked by he grabbed your hand.’”

A perfect example of never being too old to learn something new, Childress took up horseback riding in her 70s and last year Schmidt bought her a retired champion jumper for Christmas. An Oldenburg breed, Sam Brown stands 16 hands high. “If I’d known he was so big I would have taken up bridge!” joked Childress.

Though in her eighth decade, Childress has no intention of slowing down and doesn’t think about the difference between her age and her colleagues.

“I have always worked. I love the people I meet and what I do. Working and doing – it’s just my way.” She shrugged and laughed, “That’s all – it’s just my way.” 

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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