Mae Sue Talley
Living Legacy 2016
The Honorable Mae Sue Talley “…simply isn’t one to sit on the sidelines and watch. She’s in the game, often making the rules.” [The Listening Post, Fall 2016] She is a modern Renaissance woman. Throughout her life she has successfully pursued a variety of interests including business woman, newspaper owner and publisher, philanthropist, diplomat and rancher. Mae Sue was born in Hampton, Virginia on November 23, 1923. In her early teens, her father died unexpectedly and her family moved to Evansville, Indiana. With its excellent schools, its museums, symphony and theater, she developed a love of culture that later influenced her to found similar cultural institutions in Phoenix.
World War II was underway when she started Indiana State University as a journalism and political science major. She soon became a war bride, following her engineering husband from one US military base to another. She said of her early life, “I was not of the belief that women had a place and they stayed in it. I just went on to do things that interested me.” She enjoyed solving difficult problems and quickly discovered she had a talent for doing so.
By the time the war was over, she was involved in number of civic activities, including the League of Women Voters Non-governmental Organization Representative to the United Nations. During her time as a member of the Red Cross Board in Connecticut she and other board members developed a system for taking blood mobiles to factories to get blood donations from the workers. Here she heard about the dangers pilots faced when trying to execute an emergency exit from a flying jet plane. There was no developed technology that would enable them to safely eject. Mae Sue decided that she could solve this problem and so in 1949 she and her husband started Talco Engineering Company and hired Yale graduate engineering students to work on the project.
She ran the business by herself for several years and during her tenure, the company designed a jet ejection seat. They needed a place to test it. In 1954 they decided to move to a place with dry weather, open space, and proximity to the West Coast, so they headed to Arizona. After much hard work, Talco Engineering completed the qualifying tests at Edwards Airforce base and received the propriety rights for the seats for the next 25 years. Mae Sue and her husband sold Talco Engineering and founded Talley Industries, which soon became a Fortune 500 company— the first to be headquartered in Phoenix.
At a time when skipping grades was not advocated, Mae Sue discovered that her children were a year ahead of the curriculum taught in public schools. She saw a need for a quality private school based on the traditional east coast private school model. In 1960 she worked with other forward thinking individuals to start the Phoenix County Day School which is still in operation.
She helped found an opera, ballet and art museum in Phoenix. When she heard that The Arizonian newspaper was up for sale, Mae Sue jumped at the chance to purchase it and utilize journalism skills she had learned in college. She also purchased Castle Hot Springs, a ranch resort founded in 1895 and favorite vacation spot for her family. Although the main building burned in a fire in 1973, she still ranches the land around it. Talley Industries purchased the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Biltmore Hotel in 1976 and less than two weeks later when they were installing a new sprinkler system the building went up in flames. Rather than raze the building Mae Sue worked with information in the Taliesin archives to recreate the décor and with enormous effort they refurbished the building to its former glory and finished right on schedule. When she became interested in French cooking she went to Paris, studied and graduated from the Cordon Bleu.
In 1979 with the unexpected death of her husband, she was looking for new challenges and when NASA reached out to her because of her aviation industry background, she joined the agency as a consultant. She was nominated, and then appointed to the United States Information Agency. As part of her duties she and others travelled to China to sign the first cultural exchange accord in more than 30 years. After 5 years with this agency, President Reagan appointed her to the Agency for International Development where she was the Private Sector Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean. One of her appointments, along with good friend Sandra Day O’Connor, was to the Defense Advisory Commission for Women in the Service. Although women were enlisting in large numbers, there was still discrimination. They could not attend the military academies, nor rise above the rank of sergeant. “We weren’t very popular with the older officers in the defense department, Mae Sue said. “But we said these privileges should not be given according to gender, but for qualifications. And we won. We got women into the academies.”
After twelve years of travelling non-stop, Mae Sue decided it was time to come home. She has continued her service here working with non-profits. Throughout her life she founded, chaired or served on over 30 non-profit boards, including Golden Gate Settlement, Barrows Neurological Institute, Hospice of Valley, Phoenix Opera Company, Stillman-McCormick Railroad Park as well as the National Ballet and National Symphony. She has received many awards, including Commander, Order of Saint John from Queen Elizabeth II. Mae Sue Talley has brought about change, influenced local, state, national and global values.