By DOUG GRAVES
FRANKFORT, Ky. – On the evening of Dec. 10, an EF4 tornado outbreak ripped through portions of the southern United States and Ohio Valley, eventually making their way through western Kentucky. Hit hard were the Kentucky towns of Cayce, Mayfield, Benton, Bowling Green, Princeton, Dawson Springs and Bremen. All suffered catastrophic damage. In Kentucky alone 75 people were killed.
Long before FEMA or the Red Cross set foot on the grounds of the devastation, one 16-year-old high school junior loaded up her 1952 Beechcraft Bonanza single-engine plane with supplies and made a one-hour flight to help.
Mary Schalk, secretary of the Barren County FFA in Glasgow, Kentucky, holds a Student Pilot license. She crammed her plane with bottled water, nonperishable foods, clothes and other donated items. She went into action just hours after hearing of the devastation.
“We called the Mayfield airport to tell them of our plan, and they used snowplows to clear debris from the runways so we could land,” Schalk said. “Those communities lost everything. We knew we had to do something.”
When Schalk told her FFA advisors and officer team she was making a second flight to deliver supplies they stepped up to help. The chapter sent out a list of needed supplies and started collecting donations. Two days after her initial flight, Schalk landed in Madisonville, Kentucky, delivering much-needed supplies.
“People were so thankful for everything we brought,” said Schalk, who admitted she had to keep her emotions inside after seeing the ruins at Mayfield. “I’ve seen sad faces before but not like this. It was devastating to see. We saw people who had lost everything.”
“Mary is the kind of girl that avoids the spotlight. She doesn’t strive for that,” said Andy Moore, Mary’s FFA advisor. “But she certainly is one to put things into action. The tornadoes hit late Friday, Dec. 10 and into Saturday morning. On Sunday, our FFA staff got together to discuss how to assist those in need. Well, Mary walked into the room to announce that her plane was lined up to take supplies to those affected people. We were all stunned. Here we were trying to make plans of helping those tornado victims and Mary had already made plans to fly into the heart of all this devastation. This girl didn’t hesitate.”
Moore was in awe of the leadership and creativity Shalck displayed amid this tragedy, especially given the emotional toll of the experience.
“Mary told me it was the worst thing she had ever seen,” Moore said. “After she saw the destruction, she had to hold herself together to fly that airplane back home. Then she had to regroup to fly out again.”
Schalk made a third flight, this time to Mayfield to deliver presents collected during a toy drive to ensure that the families who lost everything during the tornado still had presents on Christmas morning.
“She’s seen firsthand what we watched on the news,” Moore said. “Mary is the kind of leader you hope to work with during your career.”
Schalk credits her father, who is also a pilot, for encouraging her to “lead by example” and FFA for promoting a “living to serve” motto, which instilled in her a passion for helping others.
“There are always things you can do to help those in need,” she said. “We were going to keep going out there until someone turned us away.”
Her father was an ag teacher and FFA advisor for 20 years.
“I’ve grown up with FFA since I was a little kid,” Mary said. “I’ve been taught to lead by serving. I want to help others as much as I can.”
Schalk helps tend to 150 head of cattle on her family’s farm. She plans to attend University of Kentucky, where she will study civil engineering. She is the daughter of Chris and Bretta Schalk.
“This is a young FFA member who is leading by example,” Moore said. “She’s focused on helping others. If there is an example of what FFA is all about this is as good of example as I’ve ever seen.”