|United Methodist church nurtured hero pilot|
Cadet Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III stands with his mother Pauline
and sister, Mary, during their visit to the Air Force Academy in
Colorado Springs in the early 1970s. A UMNS photo courtesy of Mary
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.
Wilson reminisces about growing up at Waples United Methodist Church in Denison, Texas.
Mary, 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
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.”
Wilson holds her brother’s 1962 certificate of church membership.
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,
“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!”
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
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
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
“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
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
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.
News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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North Texas Conference
Waples United Methodist Church