Community loses artist, pilot

Froyd co-piloted Ron Englund’s 1929 Fleet biplane at Jim Wright Field for her 88th birthday, June 2014.

Shirley B. Froyd was both an artistic icon and pioneer

On May 12, Cottage Grove community member Shirley B. Froyd passed away due to natural causes, leaving behind a local legacy of art, aviation and nature conservation.

Froyd was born Shirley Ann Blocki in Chicago on June 6, 1926. A child of the Great Depression, she learned to surmount challenges early in life as she lost her mother to leukemia at only age five.

Despite this less-than-ideal start, Froyd would go on to demonstrate an unwavering zeal for life.

From an early age, Froyd became fascinated with airplanes and art. Immediately following high school, she wasted no time setting herself on track to become a pilot by applying to the aviation program at Stephens College in Columbia, MO.

By age 20, she had graduated, winning the Aeronca award for top pilot in her class.

Froyd went on to join the Ninety-Nines, an organization of professional female pilots which was in part founded by famed pilot Amelia Earhart in 1929. Though the group had grown in membership by the time Froyd joined in 1946, the organization takes its name from the 99 women who initially answered Earhart’s call to organize.

By 1952, Froyd had earned many additional flight ratings, including for aerobatics, multi-engine planes, instruments and seaplanes. Most notably, she also won the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race (also known as the Powder Puff Derby) as a 26-year-old rookie and went on to participate in the race for several years, always finishing highly. Her distinguished career earned her flight instructor positions for several colleges for years to come.

During this time, Froyd also managed to get a master’s degree in art to accompany her master’s in aviation while raising three children. When her youngest child went off to college in 1977, only then did she leave her final flight instructor position at the Bates Aeronautics Program at Harvey Mudd College.

For Froyd, every end seemed to be a new beginning and she took this new opportunity to move to the humble town of Cottage Grove where a bold project would help define the next chapter of her life. Froyd immediately joined a small group of pioneers in the Cerro Gordo project, a cooperative effort seeking to establish a utopian ecovillage on a 1,200-acre plot of land north of Dorena Lake.

Though she’d never built a house before, Froyd adapted to the situation and, with the help of others, built a log house duplex with her own hands, even furnishing the house with some pieces she’d taught herself to craft.

Froyd moved onto the land in 1978, but it would be years before electricity and running water were put in place.

“My first summer with her here was 1979, when the roof and walls were complete but we still hauled water from town in five-gallon jugs, cooked on camp stoves, and read by propane lamps or flashlights at night,” recalled son Eric Alan.

Despite the Cerro Gordo project never attaining its lofty goals, Froyd loved living in nature and years later participated in the Cerro Gordo’s shift to a focus on land conservation, a project which succeeded in preserving 1,000 acres of land on the north shore of Dorena Lake via two conservation easements.

Froyd expressed her love for nature, too, in twenty years of volunteer work on Mt. Pisgah where she was a member of the Monday Morning Regulars doing trail and land maintenance. She also was a central member of the outdoors group the Obsidians, leading roughly 70 hiking and biking trips.

Her love for art was also a constant throughout, and Froyd found a way to express it in the Cottage Grove community. Building her own art studio in her Cerro Gordo house, Froyd became well-known as a masterful watercolor painter and was an accomplished member of the Watercolor Society of Oregon, displaying her works in many galleries, shows and other venues. She was active in many other mediums as well, including acrylics, leatherwork, stained glass, colored pencil and woodwork.

“Everything was an art form to her, from aviation to house building and mothering,” said Alan. “She was prolific, producing hundreds of paintings, and her art always seemed to end up in the homes and offices of nearly everyone she came to know.”

On top of her frequent displays, Froyd’s art found more permanent space in several spots around town.

“There are more places in Cottage Grove than I know where it resides, but at the moment I know her work can be found in the William J. Welt, Inc. fuel company offices, The Bookmine, on at least two of the collaborative murals downtown (one by the Rural Organizing Project, and the other near the This’N’That thrift store), and in the Cottage Grove Community Center.”

On the latter, Froyd was one of three people who made the three-dimensional town model sitting in the Community Center’s lobby.

Her work can also be found in the Obsidians Lodge, the Mt. Pisgah offices and the Wild Rose Medical Clinic in Eugene.

Up until her passing just weeks before her 94th birthday, Froyd’s love of life was undiminished.

For her 88th and 89th birthdays, she managed to co-pilot Ron Englund’s 1929 Fleet biplane at Jim Wright Field in Cottage Grove and continued her love for hiking up until she was 90.

Health and memory issues finally prohibited her from these activities and she spent the last four months of her life at ElderHealth and Living Memory Village in Springfield where staff recalled her kindness and resilience even until her last days.

“She was a phenomenal mother and grandmother as well; we had a profoundly close and peaceful relationship,” said Alan.

Froyd’s outdoors legacy includes a substantial bequest to the charitable environmental organization The Nature Conservancy, which will support regional land conservation efforts in years to come.

With her vast and diverse art supplies, the family intends on creating an art program in her name through community and/or schools and has begun preliminary discussions with community members.

As the family sifts through her belongings, Alan said there may also be aviation memorabilia to offer the Oregon Aviation Historical Society in Cottage Grove.

“She was a quiet but central presence in Cottage Grove for over 42 years, who seemed to know and be loved by everyone here,” said Alan. “She had a remarkable combination of toughness and sweetness; always openminded, curious and nonjudgmental.”

Under the current public health circumstances, the family is not planning a celebration of life gathering in the near future.

Anyone who wishes to honor Froyd’s love of local nature and community may make a tax-deductible donation to the nonprofit Cerro Gordo Land Conservancy at P.O. Box 192, Cottage Grove, OR, 97424.

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