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Obscure Objects: Mary E. “Mother” Tusch Plaque

Posted on Thu, June 16, 2016
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“God bless you,” was the way in which “Mother” Tusch said farewell to pilots who visited her at her Berkeley, California cottage from 1915 to 1950, so it is fitting that the phrase is engraved on this plaque found among her vast collection of aviation memorabilia.

<p>This bronze commemorative plaque measures 50.8 x 1.3 x 20.3 cm (20 x 1/2 x 8 in.) and shows Mary Elizabeth “Mother” Tusch on the right and her husband, Cary, on left, with torches depicted on each side. In raised letters in the middle it says, “Mother of Aviators,” and below that, “God Bless You.”</p>

The plaque declares Mary to be the “Mother of Aviators,” and that is no exaggeration. Mary Tusch welcomed hundreds, if not thousands, of aviators — some famous, some not — into her bungalow across the street from the School of Military Aeronautics at the University of California, Berkeley. She served as a mother figure to them, many of whom were far from home and would soon be going to war, and she called them her “boys.” Soon she became known to all as Mother Tusch.

Mother Tusch became an avid collector of aviation objects, and those who visited her brought mementos from their travels and flying exploits to add to her collection. Over the years, her little house was filled wall-to-wall with flight-related items such as photos, scrapbooks, autographs, newspaper clippings, posters, maps, log books, and correspondence, along with objects such as insignias, medals, plaques, goggles, helmets, coats, propellers, and art made out of shell casings. The house became known as “The Hangar, Shrine of the Air.”

<p>One section of the inside of Mother Tusch’s house known as the “Shrine of the Air.” You can see the pilots’ signatures on the wallpaper at the top. </p>

Mother Tusch came to know many famous aviators, including Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Richard Byrd, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Doolittle, Roscoe Turner, and Billy Mitchell. She often invited visitors to sign her wallpaper, which featured silhouettes of airplanes and became literally covered in signatures, including those of her most notable friends.

Some of the most interesting items in her collection included the fur and cloth cap worn by Adm. Richard Byrd on an Antarctic expedition; the protective helmet from the early days of Henry “Hap” Arnold’s flying career, ca. 1910-1911 (he later became World War II Commander of the Army Air Forces); and a Royal Air Force flying coat purported to have been worn by Edward, Prince of Wales, in World War I.

<p>Informal photo of Mary E. “Mother” Tusch sitting on a couch at her home in Berkeley, California circa 1949. She is displaying an autographed photo of General William E. “Billy” Mitchell.</p>

In 1950, when Mother Tusch’s health deteriorated to the point where she had to move to Washington, DC to live with her daughter, Irene, she donated the entire collection, including the carefully peeled-off wallpaper, to the Smithsonian’s National Air Museum, the precursor to the National Air and Space Museum. The donation was due, in part, to family ties. Irene was married to Air Museum curator Paul Garber. At the time of the donation, Gen. Hap Arnold described it as, “the finest … in the world of historic air-related objects.” Parts of the collection were placed on display in one of the Air Museum’s two buildings — the Arts & Industries building or the Aviation building — shortly after the donation.

<p class="MsoNormal">Mary E. “Mother” Tusch is shown here shortly before her collection was sent to Washington in 1947. She is surrounded by the aviation memorabilia that she avidly collected, especially the personal items given to her by the many military pilots who trained at the U.S. School of Military Aeronautics at the University of California at Berkeley campus during WWI. These objects, now in the NASM’s collection, were meant to show the aviators’ gratitude for her maternal concern for them, hence the name “Mother” Tusch.</p>

Mother Tusch was an honorary member of the Women Flyers of America, The Veterans of Foreign Wars, The National Aeronautic Association, the Exchange Club, and the League of American Penwomen.

She died in 1960 at the age of 85. Her husband, Cary, a civil engineer, had died in 1928. Their ashes are buried side-by-side in the Urn Garden of the Sunset View Cemetery in Contra Costa County, California. Their gravemarker is a duplicate of the plaque shown above.

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