Mary Ferris came to Oro Valley in 1985, by way of Boston, by way of Madrid, Spain, by way of Goose Bay, Labrador, by way of St. Paul, Minnesota— and a few other places in between.
Over her 83 years, Mary has quenched again and again her thirst for world travel, thanks not only to her husband’s work in the hospitality industry but the career she held herself before their marriage: as a nurse in the U.S. Air Force.
During her nine years in the military, Mary served stateside and overseas, achieved her goal of being a flight nurse, and, with her wings, tended to wounded special forces men in the early days of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
On the lighter side, she took advantage of the “hops” the Air Force made available, seeing Hong Kong, Thailand and Hawaii. While serving in Japan, she climbed Mount Fuji. Travel opportunities spurred her to join the military and decades later remain among her fondest memories.
It started in 1954, when Mary was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. She had earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing three years prior from the College of St. Catherine, now St. Catherine University, in her hometown of St. Paul and worked at a civilian hospital at first. But she was an adventurous and spirited young woman. She wanted to see the world, meet new people, and find out more about herself, having grown up as an only child.
“I was given a lot of love and a lot of care and got so much attention that I kind of wanted to go out and see what I could do on my own,” she said.
Impressed by a cousin who was an officer in the Air National Guard, Mary, at age 24, moved over to the military. She had assignments in California and Japan before switching to a reserve unit in 1955. While a reservist, she used the GI Bill to earn her master’s degree in nursing education from St. Louis University, earned her captaincy, and secured a coveted flight school slot. She went back into active duty with plans to be a career flight nurse and hopes to be stationed in Spain.
The Air Force sent her to Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada instead.
The Canadian assignment could hardly be considered a disappointment, though. That’s where she met her husband, Manny Ferris, at that time a civilian recreational director for the base. After she served with an air evac squadron at Itazuke Air Force Base on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, Mary and Manny married and Mary resigned her commission— in the early 1960s, married women who planned to have children had to leave the service.
She stayed connected to the Air Force through Manny, whose next assignment was Torrejón Air Base outside of Madrid—granting Mary her wish to live in Spain.
This is where she had the first of the couple’s four daughters. The growing family also lived in Winnipeg, Canada before Manny went to work for a small hotel chain out of Boston, where they made a home for many years. Eventually, Manny went to work for Sheraton.
The Ferrises first came to Oro Valley in 1982 for the opening of a property Manny developed for the hotel giant: the Sheraton (now Hilton) El Conquistador. By 1985 they were living here permanently. At that time, Mary noted, cattle moseyed onto Tangerine Road.
Mary and Manny now live in an apartment at Splendido, where they were charter members. Mary keeps active with volunteering and bridge.
Her Air Force days are officially some 50 years in the past, but rich in her memory.
“I think I owe the Air Force more than the Air Force owes me because I had a wonderful, wonderful time,” she said. “I loved it.”