Sunday, November 3, 2013

My Gay Relatives: Sally Balcomb and Betty Rodgers

Decaying sign for Bal-rone's Ashland Airport, 1967.
Time for some females in this series of posts on My Gay Relatives. In previous entries here and here I mentioned how the past doesn’t always reveal its secrets and that determining whether a past relative is gay is often difficult in a culture that historically tends to erase the fact of people being gay. But sometimes secrets are hidden in plain sight. Sometimes the people surrounding those secrets just don’t want to see them.

That seems to have been the case with my first cousin twice removed Sally Balcomb (1927-2007) and her longtime companion Betty Jean Rodgers (b. 1929). Sally was my paternal grandmother’s first cousin. My father recalls his family speaking casually and matter-of-factly about Sally and Betty—their two names together formed a unit. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that Dad finally put two and two together and realized that Sally and Betty were lesbians.

I can’t imagine that my father’s parents, Stanley Raymond Shanower (1917-1987) and Verna Lucille Evans Shanower, Sally’s cousin, didn’t recognize the situation. I believe they just chose not to think about it. My grandfather Stanley Shanower discussed homosexuality with me when I was twelve years old. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but I remember what he said about it. His understanding was that sometimes mothers dressed their sons in female clothing when the sons were young and those sons grew up to be homosexual. Even at twelve I thought this sounded a bit ridiculous, but I wasn’t about to argue with Grandpa on what I found to be an uncomfortable subject. Notice that he didn’t even begin to address female homosexuality. I bet it didn’t cross his mind at the time.

My grandmother Lucille knows that I’m gay. She’s met my partner David plenty of times and always mentions him in letters and when I speak to her on the phone. But I’ve never brought up the subject of my being gay with her in conversation. What I think is this—that Grandma can handle it if she’s not confronted with it.

And that’s what I think the family attitude was toward Sally and Betty.

Sally Balcomb was born in Elyria, Lorain County, Ohio, the daughter of my great-great-aunt Inez Irene Grandy Balcomb Kolinski (1892-1996) and Nelson Henry Balcomb (1888-1932). When Sally was five years old her father died. One afternoon Nelson Balcomb left in his car for a hunting trip. That evening his car was found burning, his body charred, the two shells in his shotgun discharged. His death was labeled a homicide. I have no idea whether Nelson Balcomb’s killer was ever caught, but it’s likely Nelson was a victim of the gang violence of Prohibition because of his job as a court stenographer. He’d been the stenographer during a highly-publicized libel suit two and a half years previous, in which William Peer sued Lorain Journal publisher David Gibson for labeling Peer a bootlegger. It was the longest trial of any kind in the history of Lorain County, Ohio, to that point. That case, or cases like it, brought Nelson Balcomb into contact with men who killed in ways similar to Nelson’s death. The police at the time acknowledged the similarity.

In any case, the 1932 death of Nelson Balcomb left five-year-old Sally fatherless. Sally and her mother Inez spent a lot of time visiting their friends, Mr. and Mrs. H. H. Gregg. Inez married again, in 1939, to Gust Kolinski (1879-1952), insurance salesman and real estate agent. Gust died of a heart attack in 1952.

Sally’s greatest enthusiasm seems to have been for aircraft. They became a major focus of her life. She learned to fly at the Ortner Airport in Birmingham, Ohio, and in Kansas City.

In 1954 Sally formed a partnership with Daniel Terlaak to purchase airplanes. They bought and sold airplanes and airplane parts. Eventually the partnership developed legal troubles. Workers sued them and Sally sued Daniel. After several years, the partnership dissolved. Sally went on to bigger things.

Bal-rone incorporates, 1959. Sally's signature is barely legible.
On February 13, 1959, Sally formed another partnership with Gary Mucciarone and Norman Cougill, both of Cleveland, Ohio. They called the company Bal-rone, Inc., a name formed from the first syllable of Balcomb and the final syllable of Mucciarone. Sally, as company agent, planned to lease the private Ashland Airport, in Ashland, Ashland County, Ohio, just off US Highway 250. Lawyer Kenneth R. Kolinski (1902-1975), Sally’s stepbrother from her stepfather’s first marriage, represented Bal-rone’s interests. In 1961 Sally purchased the thirty-year-old Ashland Airport, which had seen a lot of aviation history.

At first things went well for Bal-rone Inc. and its small airport. Sally continued to buy and sell aircraft and aircraft parts. She formed a local chapter of the Experimental Aviation Association and in 1963 the association gave her an award.

On September 2, 1965, tragedy occurred. A pilot crashed a Bal-rone airplane in Perrysville, Ohio, and died. A confidential report noted severe mental depression of the pilot and other indications of suicide.

This accident may or may not have been a contributing factor to Sally’s next step, distancing herself from Ashland Airport. More likely she was influenced by the growing desire of Ashland County to build its own county airport. On April 1, 1966, Sally leased Ashland Airport to the American Tower Company, Inc., of Shelby, Ohio. But when the one-year lease was up on March 31, 1967, American Tower declined to renew it, citing lost revenue. Ashland County, meanwhile, proceeded with its plans for a county airport. There were delays to those plans—including a lawsuit to stop the county from going ahead. There was also talk of turning Ashland Airport into the new county airport. But eventually the Ashland County Airport was built elsewhere.

Ashland Airport's final days, 1967.
At the end of 1971, Bal-rone Inc. filed dissolution papers with the state of Ohio.

I don’t know where or when Sally met Betty. Unlike airports, gay couples didn’t start to make the news until comparatively recently. But Sally and Betty were together for decades.

I met Sally Balcomb and Betty Rodgers only once that I know of—at the Methodist Church memorial service for my grandfather Stanley Shanower in Mentor, Lake County, Ohio, in May 1987. After the service there was a reception in the church hall. Two older women approached me and introduced themselves—Sally Balcomb and Betty Rogers. I’d never met them before, but as soon as they spoke to me I vaguely suspected that they were the two relatives that Dad had realized were lesbians.

I’m sure Sally and Betty suspected strongly that I was gay, but they didn’t talk to me openly about it. They were cleverer than that. They communicated indirectly. They knew I was a cartoonist, so they brought up Howard Cruse, the most famous gay cartoonist in the USA. I hadn’t met Howard then, but I was well aware of his career and said so. I was also very uncomfortable. It would still be a little over six months before I finally faced head-on the fact that I was gay. So I didn’t really talk with Sally and Betty about anything of substance. Now I wish I had. I may be projecting in retrospect, but the sense I got from them was that they were secure and content with who they were.

I mentioned Sally and Betty to my grandmother when I saw her last year. As far as Grandma knew they were still alive. I’ve subsequently found that Sally died in 2007. In Sally’s obituary, Betty is called Sally’s sister. Sister?—whether that’s coy, obfuscating, or just ignorant of the facts, it indicates Betty was still alive. Yet I can’t find her. The telephone number Grandma gave me is no longer in service. I assume I won’t be speaking with Betty ever again.

But at least I talked with Sally and Betty about Howard Cruse.

Cartoonist Howard Cruse and some of his creations.

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