Friends, family and colleagues continue to mourn Provincetown duo lost in plane crash Gwen Bloomingdale and Barbara Gard were unforgettable part of disparate milieus




Friends, Family And Colleagues Continue To Mourn Provincetown Duo Lost In Plane Crash Gwen Bloomingdale And Barbara Gard Were Unforgettable Part Of Disparate Milieus

By Beth Berlo, Bay Windows staff


Friday, March 16, 2001, The London-to-Sydney Air Race 2001 roared off March 11 as scheduled, but not before teams observed a moment of silence for aviators Gwen Bloomingdale and Barbara Gard, killed just days before when their twin-engine plane fell into the frigid waters off the coast of Iceland. It could be months, investigators say, before they will know what may have caused the crash, or learn why no distress call was received.

Meanwhile, the Web site set up by the women to help fans track their around-the-world-by-plane progress continues to act as a memorial site where well-wishers express their grief and condolences. The tragedy has resulted in outpourings of sentiment not only from complete strangers around the globe, but also from the many friends and family members who knew the adventurous duo as aviators and activists who endeavored to leave their communities better places for their presence.

Bloomingdale was a vocal activist and accomplished attorney in Boston's then-nascient gay community, where she soon became a fixture around town helping organizations such as the (then-named) Greater Boston Gay and Lesbian Political Alliance and the (then-named) Human Rights Campaign Fund get off the ground. She also served as a mentor to many people who today are prominent leaders in Boston's gay community, including many people now active in Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association.

Don Gorton, co-chair of the Massachusetts Governor's Task Force on Hate Crimes, is one of them. ``She mentored me and got me started in the Gay and Lesbian Political Alliance," Gorton said. ``She was one of the more experienced activists to get younger activists involved. I have very fond memories of her."

  Media Credit: Cape Cod Times Gwen Bloomingdale, right, and Barbara Gard in front of their ill-fated plane.

In 1987, Bloomingdale was instrumental in passing the gay rights bill, Gorton recalled: ``We had to have two successive votes in Senate. We had the majority of votes, but couldn't get it through the Third Reading Committee. We were initially able to get the bill approved by Senate, but it was buried in committee and the final vote didn't take place and the bill died. But Gwen pressured the Legislature to get it to the point where we had the majority vote in Senate."

There was a sense of urgency to passing the bill at the time, Gorton said. ``It was very much a Zeitgiest [effort on her part]," Gorton recalled of Bloomingdale after the bill got through in 1989: ``She was very much someone who made her commitment to justice felt. She moved on to Provincetown and I had a career into which she introduced me. I remember her vividly. She's someone who lived with style and died doing what she loved most."

Gard left her own marks in Provincetown and beyond, especially with the Center for Coastal Studies, a renowned marine research center on Cape Cod perhaps best known for helping during strandings of whales, dolphins and other sea life along the coast. And both women will be sorely missed in Provincetown, where they had woven themselves into the political and social fabric of a town where lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgenders and heterosexuals mix more easily than most anywhere else in the country. Their efforts are credited by many in the community with helping to keep Provincetown the unique place that it is, both socially and environmentally.

The couple's Web site, was initially created for family and friends to track their trip around the globe that the couple planned for the next year after the race. The women had installed a camera in their cockpit and looked forward to sending their Rockport, Mass., and Dallas, Texas, grandchildren live updates into their classrooms.

Debbie Bloomingdale, Gwen's daughter-in-law, has two children, aged six and eight, in the Rockport school system. ``Over 40 kids sat in that cockpit two weeks ago," Bloomingdale said. ``They knew them. It's been really hard. One of them asked if Darwin was coming back." The couple's mascot was a stuffed monkey named Darwin, perhaps named after the destination of the first Great Air Race in 1919. While some wish their ashes were being buried together, Bloomingdale's will be buried in Provincetown, while Gard's will go home to her family in Indiana.

``They weren't legally married," Bloomingdale said. ``They didn't make their wishes known. We have absolutely nothing to do with what happens to Barbara, the same way Barbara's family has nothing to do with [what happens to] Gwen. I think that Barbara's family needs to do what they need to do and so do we. We live in Massachusetts, so it's easier for us to get to. But it's a very hard line." They died together living their dream, Bloomingdale added. ``How many of us will do that? They don't have to fight for their rights anymore or for people to accept them."

Several friends and relatives of the women pilots have likened them to aviator Amelia Earhart (who was also lost at sea) and Christa McAullife, the New Hampshire teacher cum Challenger astronaut who died when that shuttle exploded and plummeted into the sea. Of the more than 50 messages posted on the Web site since the accident, most are condolences. Some are poems and still others are fond memories of the couple walking around town in Provincetown. Some posts were by family members, while others arrived from friends as far way as Ireland and France.

One fellow pilot who said he learned to fly in the Cape Cod area posted a poem, ``Do Not Stand At My Grave," written by an anonymous author: ``Do not stand at my grave and weep; I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow; I am the diamond glints on snow," it said. Another post came from someone who described Gwen as an aunt and thanked people for leaving what were comforting and heart-felt messages. Gerry Desautels, who has maintained the Web site throughout -- from inception to its conversion as a memorial -- said the outpouring ``has been amazing. It's such a cross-section of people they knew earlier in their lives and careers."

The London-to-Sydney Air Race is sanctioned by Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) and will commemorate Australia's Centenary of Federation in 2001. The race has 21 formally scored race legs with stopovers in, among other places, Crete, Bali, and Indonesia. There are now 49 planes left in the 28-day race. During an interview with the Provincetown Banner in February, Bloomingdale said, ``If that process happens without glitches, and with flyable weather and no mechanical issues, then we will be very lucky." When asked what was next after criss-crossing the world, Bloomingdale matter-of-factly responded, ``We'll probably find the next road out there on our trip, somewhere along the way."

In a December interview with The Boston Globe, Bloomingdale told a reporter that she and Gard had both experienced forced landings before and knew what to expect if it happened again. But when asked if they had nightmares about such an event, Bloomingdale quipped, ``Absolutely no. We wouldn't fly if we did. We're not scared. Are we excited? Yes, very." A service for Gard will be held at 7 p.m. March 22 at St. John's United Church of Christ in Crown Point, Ind. On March 24, a service for both women will be held at 2 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown. A reception will follow at the Provincetown Municipal Airport Lounge.

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