Jane Ballard found herself far from home as the only woman at Air Force pilot training in Del Rio, Texas. The year was 1981, and the ink was hardly dry on her Clemson University diploma.
Soon after arrival in Del Rio, base leadership asked Ballard’s class to create five goals for graduation.
Her 59 male classmates shared one of their personal goals: graduate with zero women.
Though it wasn’t easy (one classmate didn’t speak to her for the first 11 months of their yearlong training), a determined Ballard persevered and graduated with her class. Hundreds of globe-spanning military and commercial flights later, Jane Ballard Dyer visits Clemson University this week to share her story.
The first Clemson ROTC alumna selected for Air Force pilot training and Clemson’s first woman ROTC cadet commander, Dyer will serve as the keynote speaker for the Military Experience Seminar as part of the University’s Military Appreciation Week. She will share her military perspective and a message of unity with an audience of graduate students studying mental health counseling in communities.
“I was stunned in pilot training and a few other experiences in the Air Force where people hated me because they didn’t think I should be there, and we see that everywhere now,” she said. “That is not good for the military, our communities, or our country. We have smart women, and smart everything, and right now, we need to be the smartest we can be.”
Dyer’s Clemson ties extend beyond her degree. Hers is one of 10 Clemson degrees her family has earned over three generations, and she volunteers with the Clemson Corps and serves on the Rutland Institute for Ethics advisory board. Her dedication and spirit of service made her a natural fit to speak during Military Appreciation Week.
“I’m honored to know Jane and to call her my friend. She’s a true inspiration to our entire military community, especially women veterans,” said Emily DaBruzzi, director of Military & Veteran Engagement. “Her story is one for the books, and I’m excited to see it shared with a wider audience. My favorite thing about Jane is that she continues to serve Clemson University’s military community through Clemson Corps. She’s always the first to step up to help or volunteer when needed and our campus continues to benefit from her leadership.”
After graduating from pilot training, Dyer flew refueling tankers during the Cold War—critical for B-52 bombers flying to Russia—before returning to Laughlin Air Force base as an instructor teaching the next generation of Air Force pilots how to fly. She met her husband in the Air Force and moved back to the Upstate, beginning a nearly 30-year career flying planes like the Boeing 777 for FedEx before retiring in 2017. She has tirelessly volunteered in the Greenville community with her church, the Boy Scouts, Greenville Women Giving, Rotary Club, Unity Park and others.
She says she inherited a spirit of service and perseverance from her parents, who encouraged her to try new things and never let anything stop her. Her father, Grady Ballard, graduated from Clemson in 1942 as a mechanical engineer and served in World War II in the US Army Air Corps.
That hardy spirit would carry Dyer through her most challenging times.
“Part of what I would say is: If my destiny is to do this, and I do my part, it will happen,” Dyer said. “I think, especially in the military, you’re tested to the brink of ‘Will you fail or not?’ and most people who try a program that’s very competitive and difficult have probably never faced failure before. When that’s a possibility, it’s really eye-opening.”
Dyer has shared a love of STEM and aviation throughout her life, encouraging young women to become pilots. A 2021 International Society of Women Airline Pilots study found that 4.3 percent of FedEx’s pilots were women, a number close to Dyer’s first years with FedEx in the 1980s. While Clemson shows its appreciation for its military history and community, Dyer hopes her story will inspire others to give their all.
“My long-term goal, especially talking to people who are going to work in the community, is for hopefully all of us to see everybody as an individual and their potential,” she said. “For us to encourage all, especially young people, to be the best we can be. Because in the world we live in today, we need everybody to be the best they can be.”
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