By Alyssa Sperrazza
Vada Mae “Billie” Lum died in 1998 but she is still remembered as an extraordinary woman who was ahead of her time.
She was a pilot during World War II, a self-made businesswoman and always had a joke to tell. Memorialized in Yukon’s Veterans Museum, Lum’s family traveled from California last week to pay their respects to the former Yukon barber and see where the larger-than-life woman they had known once lived and worked.
Kathryn Ruedi and her husband Walter began traveling across the south October 19 with Ruedi wanting to visit the older generations of her father’s family while they are still alive. She knew though, having met Billie twice, that she had to stop by Yukon during her trip to see where Lum had lived and worked.
“Billie’s brother was my father-in-law,” Ruedi explained. “My father-in-law also lived in Oklahoma but Billie lived here and was a barber for I think 63 years. I had met her in California but never got to come to Yukon to see her. So we’re doing a cross country trip in our car.”
Ruedi first stopped in Arizona, driving then to New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida.
“Our goal before we get too old and unable to travel is to hit all of the 50 states,” Ruedi said. “We did a northwest trip, now this is kind of our south trip, then we’ll do a northeast trip.”
Stopping in Yukon was a must though and Ruedi was determined to track down Billie’s barbershop. She knew it was on Main Street but that was all.
“We have the old original barber shop chair in our home in San Diego,” Ruedi said. “I had asked her if she knew Garth Brooks and she said, ‘Yes, I cut the guy’s hair when he was a kid!’ and then we recently went to see him in concert in San Diego so that was neat.”
Driving down Main street in Yukon, Ruedi pulled onto S. 4th Street, parking her car and walking up to a barber storefront. It was the second attempt at finding it, but from the sign out front reading “Billie’s Barber Shop” Ruedi had a good feeling this would be it.
Ruedi and her husband wandered in to ask store owner Tera Kerr if she could help. Right away, Kerr let them know they found the right place… that it was Billie’s shop.
“I knew Billie,” Kerr said. “She was still alive when I started renting it from her. My grandfather cut hair up the street so I knew Billie forever. She was like family. When she retired, we came in and started cutting hair here… Billie was a great, great lady.”
In a time when women weren’t business owners, let alone barbers, Billie threw the status quo out the window, doing what she wanted when she wanted, something both Ruedi and Kerr admired about her.
“She was quite a lady,” Kerr recalled. “She did quite a bit in her time that was way ahead of her time. And she always had a joke… she was hilarious.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lum took flying lessons at Cimarron Field in Yukon, joining the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in 1944. She flew planes throughout the war, continuing to fly military planes for private companies after WASP was disbanded. She even held a second lieutenant’s commission as commanding officer of the Civil Air Patrol.
WASP was not recognized by Congress as part of the military until February 1986, giving members an honorable discharge. It was then, decades later, that Billie finally received her bar, ribbons and a gold pin.
“She talked about what she did as a WASP but she was very modest,” Ruedi said. “Told us that it was unusual as a woman to be involved in the military like she was and we knew she was special that she had a place in history and we were proud of her. And then also proud of her that she was a business owner and she had a funny quick wit.”
Opening her barber shop in 1933, she cut hair for 61 years, retiring in 1994. Ruedi knew she loved her store, but visiting Lum’s memorial at the museum, she said she learned even more about the woman she came to visit.
“I learned she raised and raced greyhound dogs and I didn’t know that,” Ruedi said. “And I didn’t know that after her stint in the military that she also flew military crafts for private companies.”
Pilot, veteran, business owner, dog racer, barber… so many titles could describe Billie Lum, but to Ruedi and Kerr and those who knew her well, she was family… a woman ahead of her time. And for Ruedi, Lum’s place in the Yukon Veterans Museum will help her story live on for generations to come.