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October 14, 2012 10:03 PM

Pilot To Pioneer

sioux falls, sd

The newly named Sylvia R. Henkin State Theatre is getting new life thanks to the Grand Dame of Sioux Falls.

We know her as a president of the Chamber of Commerce, a TV and radio star and philanthropist, but there is a part of Sylvia Henkin's life you may not know about. Before all of those accomplishments, she was a member of the Civil Air Patrol.

But even in her future namesake, 92-year-old Henkin will gladly give top billing to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Clark Gable. Those silver screen greats were some of the first to light up what is now known as the Sylvia R. Henkin State Theatre. 

“Those were the heydays," Henkin said.

Before she was the grand dame of Sioux Falls, Henkin had a few of her own heydays. Let's just say this isn't the first time you can look up and find her. Before she was Sylvia Henkin the pioneer, she was Sylvia Wolff, the pilot.

"The freedom, it's beautiful up there,” Henkin said. "Well, you'll have to hang on, because I'll go way back to the beginning,"

It was around 1938 when government officials gave free civilian pilot training to encourage young men to take flying lessons.  There were 13 men enrolled in classes in Sheldon, Iowa and, thanks to Henkin's two older brothers, who, to her surprise, signed her up.

She was the only woman in the class and a different woman, her mom, was in shock.

"She said, you fool, you!  Don't you know you could get killed! That made the laughter of the whole town," Henkin said.

Though she was the competing with 13 other men, Henkin says there was no sexism in her flying classes; just plenty of hard work. As noted by her log book, which documents every turn, every landing and every observation from her instructor.

"On this particular day, he remarked, ‘Thought she should quit,’” Henkin said. “I got to the point when I was really over my head; you know when you jump into something like this. The next time I took some flight time, he said, ‘She's about ready to solo,’ Henkin said.

In 1940 she got her private pilot's license and became a member of the civil air patrol. Because of the war, all private planes were restricted, grounding Henkin for a while.

In the meantime, she had other important duties, like keeping a watch on our waters. With a lot of pride, and a little humor, she remembers patrolling the Floyd River in Iowa.

"And I want you to know, Brady, there was never a Japanese submarine sighted on my guard,” Henkin said.

Before she knew it she was back in the air and she'll never forget flying over Okoboji.

"I took a look ahead and saw that water and instinctively my feet came off the floorboards. They should've been on the rutters, which they were, but anyway, that's a very interesting feeling flying over water," Henkin said.

And as the only woman out of 4,000 people with a private pilot's license in this area, a bright future was ahead. Henkin was offered a captain's position in the United States Air Force.

"It would have been absolutely fantastic, however romance was beating down the back of my head and I was engaged to a gentleman whose offices used to be right across the street from the state theatre, Mort Henkin. So, he won out, and I married him. Or he lost out because I married him," Henkin said.

That is how the pilot, became a pioneer for Sioux Falls. 

It's easy to see how her family gift to the State Theatre traces back to what she calls a gift many years ago.

“Growing up in a man's world, I always knew I was always left there to help my mother.  She never learned how to write English because papa would do it.  My brothers took over, they were my role models.  They set some pretty high standards and I think I answered them,” Sylvia said.

Even though she's flown to the top of the world a couple of times, this local celebrity is still not ready to land.

Henkin says her mom eventually did go flying with her.  After the first trip, she says her mom preferred traveling by plane.

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