Monday afternoon, I sat in a living room a block from the Huntington Beach shore, surrounded by the effects of the life of Vi Cowden. I may be one of the last people to see them all under one roof.
Kim Ruiz, Cowden's only child, invited me to visit her mother's house shortly after the former World War II pilot died at 94. Ruiz and I, accompanied by her son and daughter, sorted through piles of plaques, magazines, book chapters, scrapbooks and, of course, the Congressional Gold Medal that Cowden won last year.
The mementos that Cowden left behind would make a natural subject for a museum. I've seen bigger museums devoted to less interesting people. Ruiz, though, had a different plan for cleaning out her mother's house.
"I'm going to let all the people who were most important to her pick one thing," she said, explaining that she would rather pass Cowden's possessions on to her friends and loved ones than let them gather dust in storage.
Ruiz plans to keep a few things, including the gold medal and the scrapbooks that a family friend lovingly made. And part of Cowden's legacy will live on in her grandson, Quinntin Ruiz, who is 16 and plans to begin training for a pilot license this summer.
I met Cowden just once that I can recall, at the Newport Beach Film Festival last year when a documentary about her, "Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story," played at Fashion Island. (It went on to win the Audience Award.) If I didn't make a big impression on her, I wouldn't blame her; she was certainly used to the media spotlight. But I'll never forget Cowden.
She was 93 then and greeted admirers graciously in her blue military coat and silver pilot wings. It was hard to get in a question as she shook hands and posed for photos, but I managed to ask at one point how she planned to celebrate having her movie in the festival.
"I'll try to hang out with my friends, I guess," she said. It was the first time I had heard a nonagenarian use the term "hang out," and I was impressed.
A memorial for Cowden is planned for May 21 at Yanks Air Museum in Chino. In the meantime, "Wings of Silver" continues to make the festival rounds. The Bolsa Chica wetlands, which Cowden dedicated much of her life to protecting, thrive a few miles away.
Whether in a cherished object or the memories of those who knew her, Vi flies on.
City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at email@example.com.