Essay on a Big Sister by Her Little Brother

By John E. Bassett

Three years ago, while living in Yakima, Washington, Kay and I were asked to host Robert Thirsk at a regional Rotary convention. Kay was the loyal Rotarian, I simply a university president therefore deemed a suitable host for Thirsk, chancellor at the University of Calgary but also a Canadian astronaut. He was to be a keynote speaker at the convention.  

My sister, Mary Anne Bassett Frey (ΦBK, George Washington University), having been a scientist with NASA, I decided, while driving Thirsk from hotel to conference center, to find out whether he and Mary Anne had ever crossed paths. So, I mentioned that my sister had been a cardiovascular physiologist working with astronauts. He asked her name and, being told, followed up with “Mary Anne Frey? She was a goddess among cardiovascular physiologists.” They had indeed worked together at Johnson Space Center in Houston in the 1980s. Meanwhile I just beamed.

The exchange was even more meaningful to me because by 2016 my sister was already showing significant signs of the Alzheimer’s disease to which she succumbed this past September. But at that time, she could fondly remember Bob Thirsk as one of her favorite astronauts and could appreciate the signed photograph he asked me to give her. To be sure, as time went on and her memory slipped, Mary Anne might tell visitors that it was our father not her brother who had run into Thirsk on his travels; but she kept that photo for the rest of her life.

What truly engaged Bob Thirsk during the remainder of our conversation that day in Yakima was the rest of Mary Anne’s story, a story that I have often told audiences, particularly women trying to get to college after a rough start in life. Mary Anne Frey was a high school dropout. Her higher education began long after she had grown up in Washington, D.C., and Chevy Chase, Maryland. Once she started back, with a fierce determination to succeed, however, she carved out a path that made her my personal hero.

The story in a way begins, as I try to tie together blurred memories and pieces of written records, back in the winter of 1951 to 1952.  Mary Anne was an attractive blue-eyed blonde teenager and an excellent student and yearbook editor at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School. I remember her enjoying music, dancing, and swimming. During World War II, she especially liked to go with our father to bring vegetables home from his Victory Garden. I also know she was unusually tolerant of this little brother who was bratty around her boyfriends and whose notion of being helpful was to give her kitty a bath by dunking it in the toilet or to give her goldfish vitamins that happened to be nail polish.  

One evening, however, Mary Anne brought home a boyfriend who, for whatever reason, raised the hackles of both parents. They told her in no uncertain terms that person could never again enter the house, and she was never to date him again. So, in a fit of pique Mary Anne ran off and married Jack, leaving high school and family behind.

Mary Anne’s departure is not clear at all in my memory. Much clearer are recollections of many times when she and our mother, who loved us dearly but was endowed with an explosive temper, screamed at each other over some misdeed one or the other had committed. The words are lost, the volume is still clear. Our father often traveling on business, at times a gentleman who rented a bedroom upstairs, Fred Wilde, needed to intervene to calm them down. As I was but nine at the time, I probably tried to hide.

The fragile state of our parents’ marriage, which ended in separation and then divorce, surely helped light the fires that led to Mary Anne’s elopement. It was some time before the family rift was healed. For the next several years she lived in a series of low-cost apartments, two or three of which I remember visiting, in Washington or nearby. She gave birth to two wonderful little girls, experienced the collapse of her marriage to Jack, and even had to take the girls into hiding out of fear for her life. She never afterward spoke about him to friends or family. Then, however, she married one of Jack’s friends, Bob Frey, and gave birth to a third wonderful daughter in 1957.

Not a typical life story for a future NASA scientist! Mary Anne, however, was intelligent and had a strong work ethic—perhaps from our parents, one of whom was a tennis champion and one who was successful in sales and business. In 1954, not yet 20, with two small children and a husband without a regular job, she knew she needed to find work. She went out looking, strengthened mostly by her native intelligence and the secretarial skills every high school girl in 1950 had been told to develop.

Mary Anne’s first break was to be hired by Page Communications Engineers as a secretary. Her supervisor, Charles (Charlie) Ill, the assistant business manager, who much later became assistant secretary of the Navy, was an astute man and quickly realized Page had not brought on board a typical dropout but someone capable of handling more complex tasks with defense contracts. Over time Mary Anne then became an assistant office manager and assistant personnel manager. Only the pending arrival of a third child kept her from accepting an offer to be an executive assistant to the president. She always valued the mentoring she received from Charlie Ill.

At one point in her work at Page, so she later told me, colleagues would sidle up to her desk and say, “Mary Anne, you seem an awfully bright young woman. Why are you in a position like this?” She replied, “Well, I do not have a high school diploma.” So, her new friends encouraged Mary Anne to complete her GED and then, in 1965, to try college.  Therefore, at age 30 she enrolled at Montgomery Junior College. I remember her cautious excitement, and I also remember her sending me, a graduate student in English, drafts of her first freshman essays for my comments. I also remember her telling me she hoped MJC would let her graduate without taking a science course. In high school she avoided science like the plague. But, no, MJC would not waive such a basic requirement. So finally, she registered for an astronomy course. Before long, it seems, a light bulb went off in her head. “This is not so bad,” she said. “This is fun. I am going to take another, maybe physics.” 

So, Mary Anne graduated as a top student at Montgomery Junior College with her AA, and then with mentors encouraging her along the way, she transferred to George Washington University, our parents’ alma mater. It is important to remember that all through this period Mary Anne was working, raising three talented daughters (12, 11, and 8 when she started at Montgomery), going to school, and all with a husband who despite his strengths was not too sure all this advanced education was worth it.

One of Mary Anne’s first stops at George Washington was the Department of Physics, where this one-time sciencephobe registered to be a physics major. There Herman Hobbs, the chairman, became her mentor, tutoring her to be ready for junior-year physics, and advising her through graduation as a Phi Beta Kappa senior with a 3.8 GPA. Her appreciation for the GWU physics department’s guidance led Mary Anne in future years to establish at the university an endowment, named for our mother Frances Walker, to support women studying physics.

Meanwhile Mary Anne’s outside job also shifted as she secured a position with the Atomic Energy Commission, working in the office of the chairman and the commissioners. There she quickly caught the attention of Chairman Glenn Seaborg, Nobel Prize chemist and pioneer in nuclear medicine. Seaborg mentored Mary Anne for several years, even inviting her and her family to join him on his annual hikes up Old Rag Mountain in Virginia and showing her how to apply for NSF funding to complete her studies. She often spoke to me of Seaborg’s inspirational mentoring, and she mourned his passing in 1999.

Mary Anne went on from physics to the medical school at GWU, where in 1975 she completed her Ph.D. in physiology. Then after an NIH post-doc she accepted a position as an assistant professor in the new medical school at Wright State University. The timing of her move to Dayton, Ohio, was prescient, for Wright State was working with NASA and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to establish an Aerospace Medicine Residency Program. Mary Anne quickly began to play a key role there as teacher and researcher.

By the early 1980s she had become a visible player in space medicine, and finally the lure of space flight and the Shuttle Program led her to move to Kennedy Space Center in Florida working with the Bionetics Corporation, supervising biomedical science labs and developing a research program at KSC. She built successful collaborations with universities and individual scientists to study aspects of cardiovascular and muscle physiology relevant to the effects of space flight. She also supported medical activities related to Space Shuttle launches and landings, helped medical and Ph.D. students, but also continued her relationship with Wright State University and its students.

A year after the 1986 tragedy of the Challenger Shuttle, Mary Anne moved from Florida to Johnson Space Center in Houston, where John B. Charles became another mentor.  The lab focused on important impacts of spaceflight on the cardiovascular system. For example, the absence of gravitational forces in space caused fluid shifts in the body with serious consequences. A decrease in plasma and blood volume caused orthostatic intolerance among returning astronauts. These and other medical questions were at the center of Mary Anne’s active research, publishing, and teaching activity until in 1990 she was asked to join the Lockheed Engineering and Sciences Company working with NASA in Washington, D.C. 

In the nation’s capital her work took on a more global dimension in space science and life sciences research. There Frank Sulzman proved to be yet another important mentor as Mary Anne expanded the scope of her activities. Nothing in her work in the 1990s was more important than the Neurolab project, which brought together international space agencies, U.S. agencies, NIH institutes, and an A-team of scientists to study the effects of microgravity on the nervous system and brain. Mary Anne was the science lead on the project. The opportunity, to be sure, came about in part because Sulzman had become deputy director of the Life Sciences Division at NASA Headquarters, under Joan Vernikos. He showed enormous confidence in Mary Anne by recommending her to take his position with Neurolab. Her new responsibilities, of course, went beyond the science itself to public relations as well as education programs managed by Ames Research Center and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Mary Anne’s active full-time career with NASA ended at NASA headquarters working, under Vernikos, as a program scientist for the Human Research Facility that was developed for the International Space Station. Later she returned to Wright State University as a full-time and then part-time professor until full retirement in 2012. During those years she continued to take on several NASA projects, edited numerous reports of joint NASA-NIH workshops, and published on such topics as weight loss and cardiac arrhythmias during space travel.

Some of her most rewarding work during her final 20 years came in NIH programs to encourage minority students to enter biomedical research careers and to eliminate health disparities in America. She especially enjoyed working with John Ruffin, director of the NIH Office of Research on Minority Health. Like others in her generation, Mary Anne had grown in her appreciation of the importance of a diverse and inclusive leadership in America. She was also frequently a consultant on spaceflight health issues and cardiovascular physiology, and she especially enjoyed working with the USA Men’s National Volleyball Team. But nothing engaged her more than her work with young graduate students, mentoring them into successful careers as others had mentored her.

Mary Anne loved her teaching, her research, and her professional activity. She co-authored more than 70 publications and countless research reports and conference papers. She received many honors and awards, but none was more meaningful to her personally than her Silver Snoopy Award, which is given by the astronauts themselves as their own recognition of excellence.

Not a bad journey for a high school dropout! She always, however, retained a sense of humility and a sense of humor about her accomplishments and her personal story. She understood how important mentors had been. She once even said to me, “But you know if I had graduated from high school and gone to college as a girl in 1952, rather than as a 30-year-old woman in 1965, no one would have encouraged me to pursue a career in science.” I answered, “Well, you would have been successful, I am sure, but, no, you probably would never have won a Silver Snoopy Award.”

Mary Anne loved travel and tennis and new ideas. She loved music, but especially the songs of Johnny Mathis. In her final month, when I put one of his CDs on her player, if she was minimally alert, she would softly say, “I have always loved Johnny Mathis.” Through all of her trials and successes Mary Anne treasured most her three beautiful daughters—Pie Frey, a clinical psychologist in Colorado, Teri (Laura) Horn, a professional in education who taught for the University of Virginia and whose doctorate from George Washington University was a special source of pride for both Teri and Mary Anne, and Karen Anderson, a successful businesswoman and her caregiver in the final years. She treasured her five grandchildren and three great grandchildren. She meanwhile provided inspiration to many who fell off the track in their youth but came back to have full and rewarding careers supported by caring mentors.

John E. Bassett (ΦBK, Ohio Wesleyan University), former president of Clark University, was initially a history major before pursuing a course of study that led to a Ph.D. in English and his career in college teaching and administration.