The Story of Moya Lear

Phyllis R. Moses

Moya Olsen fell head over heels in love with Bill Lear on their first date. "I loved the way he moved, the way he talked to me. I knew this was a special man" This is Moya's story.

Moya was born Moya Marie Olsen in 1915 in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents were Lillian and John "Ole" Olsen, who was a vaudeville performer, appearing in theaters across the country.

It was during one of her father's stints on Broadway that Moya met the love of her life.

She was 23 years old and perfectly happy working backstage for her father. One night as she worked at her typewriter, her father called out to her, "Honey, come here. I want you to meet someone." Moya reluctantly left her work and went to the door. " Sweetheart, this is Bill Lear. Meet my daughter, Moya, Bill" This casual introduction changed Moya's life forever.

Bill would often take Moya and her father out to dinner when he was in town. Moya said, "After all, he was one of Daddy's friends and I had to be nice to him." One evening as she was finishing her work, there was a soft knock on the door. It was Bill Lear. Moya asked, "What's the matter are you lost?" He answered. "No, I'm not lost: I'm in the right place. I thought maybe you would come and have a drink with me." "That night we wound up at Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club," Moya said. "As we walked in, the entrance was packed with people waiting to be seated. The maitre d' walked briskly over and said, 'Mr. Lear, I have your table for you.' I realized then just how special he was.

"The waiter asked for our drink orders. Bill asked me what I would like to drink, and I replied, 'I don't drink.' So he told the waiter to bring me a Coke, and him a Scotch and Soda.

"Then the magic moment came when Bill asked me if I would like to dance. I quickly said yes. Well, that's where it happened. I fell hopelessly in love with him. He was an incredible dancer I was pretty good too. We were a striking couple.

"He told me everything that first night I found out about all his loves, his disappointments and his dreams. That first conversation was just a forerunner of all those we had in the succeeding years."

Bill and Moya married in 1942 and thus began a remarkable partnership that lasted until his death in 1978. Much of their life revolved around his genius for inventing. In the early 1930s, he designed the first practical car radio using vacuum tube technology. With an initial production order of 100 - which sold in a matter of minutes in front of the plant - a new industry was born. Every car radio in the world used Bill's design for the next 25 yeas - that is, until the transistor was invented, which replaced the vacuum tube.

Bill also invented the ADF - Automatic Directional Finder - and was the first to introduce the automatic pilot, an invention that occupied much of his attention during the 1940s. His concept - a system that was small and practical, yet reliable in turbulent weather - was used in F-86 jet fighters during the Korean War.

In 1949, he received the Collier Trophy, one of aviation's most prestigious awards. President Truman presented the award to Bill at the White House It reads:

To Wiliam P. Lear, Director of Research and Development of Lear, Incorporated, for his outstanding achievement in the development, perfection, application, and production of the Lear F-5 Automatic Pilot and Automatic Control Coupler system, which makes possible the safe landing of Jet Aircraft regardless of extreme weather or visibility conditions.

After the presentation and photo session, President Truman asked Moya "Mrs. Lear do you ever help your husband in the business? Do you ever tell him what to do?" I looked up at him, smiling, and said. "No. Mr. President, I never tell him what to do. I sometimes tell him where to go, but ..."

Moya realized in time that this dynamic man could be a difficult husband. The business pressures, the admiration and respect bestowed on him by those in the industry, to say nothing of the effect he had on the women he came in contact with, caused problems and led to an expansive ego. Summed up, the man others perceived as a hero had feet of clay.

"Bill did have flaws, but I loved him. I loved him with a true knock-down-drag-out, unconditional love," she said. "We respected each other, and we both had a healthy sense of humor. He brought out the best in me, and I brought out the best in him."

During the early days of their marriage, money was tight, but Moya did her best to provide a happy home for Bill and their four children: John, Shanda, David and Tina. When Bill decided that he really wanted to build airplanes, Moya provided unwavering support.

His first aircraft, the Learstar, was a highly modified Lockheed Lodestar, which offered corporate transport at speeds up to 300 miles per hour and at a range of 3,800 miles. But he was convinced that general aviation needed a private jet that would provide speeds comparable to the recently introduced Boeing 707.

The Lear Company moved to Switzerland in 1955 to utilize foreign manpower and engineering expertise. It was there in 1961 that the Learjet project was born. However the language barrier and unforeseen manufacturing problems caused Bill to move the company back to Wichita, Kansas, the center of American aircraft manufacturing.

And so the Learjet burst onto the scene in August 1963. It was built and certified in 10 months. It weighed less than 12500 pounds and flew at 560 miles per hour. Its first night was symbolic in many ways; it represented a long and arduous path. Bill and Moya wept together as the plane took to the air. Moya's opinions and support were invaluable to her husband. Rarely did Bill launch a new venture without thoroughly discussing it with her. She also served on the Board of Directors of the Lear Company and accompanied Bill on endless business trips. These ventures took them coast to coast in the US, and to many foreign countries.

This travel, though wonderful, took its toll on Moya and their family who yearned for a permanent home. So in the late 1960s the Lears moved to Verdi, Nevada, just west of Reno, where their home, "River House," sprawls on the grassy banks of the Truckee River. Moya spent the intervening years establishing the Lear family in the community. It was here that Bill and Moya spent their remaining years together. It is also where she lives today

By the early 1970s, Bill's eyesight had dimmed somewhat, and his gait was a little slower but that fabulously inventive brain of his was still traveling along at Mach 2. As usual, his focus was on the general aviation market. He was always asking himself, "How can I improve the operation of business aircraft?"

As a result of his ingenuity a new concept was born: an eight-place business jet that could be flown by a single pilot and would burn one-third the fuel of conventional aircraft of the same size and weight. This aircraft, dubbed the "Lear Fan," was revolutionary. Designed as a pusher-propeller driven with twin turboshaft engines-it was to be constructed of a molded graphite composite, a material no commercial aircraft designer had used to date.

As Bill doggedly pursued his Lear Fan dream, he and Moya received some devastating news: he had advanced-stage leukemia. Doctors gave him a scant two months to live.

Moya was by his side constantly during his final days. As he arranged the legal details of his estate, they spent happy hours recounting their life together. However even during this time, Bill was driven to move the Lear Fan forward, seeking assurance from Moya that she would see the project to fruition.

"As he persisted from his hospital bed, I thought, 'What is he talking about? He knows there's no possible way I can do anything about the Lear Fan.' But he did know. He knew I was going to need this work to do. He knew that I would be there, and that my 'being there' would help keep the team together."

At the end, Bill secured that promise from Moya. He said, "Mom, finish it! Don't let the project get away from you." With that passionate plea on his lips, Bill Lear died on May 14, 1978.

Moya didn't think she could go on without Bill, but the day after the funeral, she went to his office. Sitting in his chair, she felt his presence; his strength seemed to come to her. From that day forward, she knew she must honor his final request.

Though opposed by some, Moya was named Chairman of the Board of the multi-million dollar Lear Avia Corporation. "One of the trustees predicted, 'Well, she'll be chairman of the board, but only a figurehead.' I surprised him! No one expected me to come to the plant every day. (But) I kept a high profile. And the loyal little gang of engineers cheered when they knew that I was going to see it (the project) through."

Over the years, Moya had absorbed design, engineering and marketing knowledge from Bill and the Lear employees. She also had a college education, This combination of knowledge became crucial when she assumed the gigantic task of trying to complete the Lear Fan project.

"I didn't run the company. What I did was motivate the workforce. I listened to what was going on. I helped solve their problems so they could do their jobs. I helped expedite some critical policy decisions, and made sure they had the machinery they needed I validated everybody's place in the organization; I let them know they were all important to the project."

But her involvement didn't end there. She helped with down payments on some employees' houses. She hosted potluck lunches for company secretaries once or twice each month. She even held teas for the employees' wives at her home, In reaching out to the employees and their families, she earned their loyalty and trust. They, in turn, helped her keep her finger on the pulse of the company.

Ultimately, though, her most recognizable contribution to the project came when she personally became the financial guarantor needed to move the project forward. As she put it, "I could NOT refuse and watch the whole Lear Fan program go down the drain. I wanted to fulfill Bill's last dream."

Despite months of struggle with both financial and international politics, the Lear Fan was completed. Politicians, financiers, engineers, factory workers, family, and friends watched as the Lear Fan prototype took to the skies January 1, 1981. It was a triumphant first flight, and everyone was wild with excitement. However spiraling production costs and loss of financing forced Lear Avia into bankruptcy.

This was a black day for Moya. Her love for the company went far beyond business; it was something her beloved Bill had built, and a company she'd been part of for years. Though stricken, she refused to let anyone break the news to workers and friends. She did it herself, tears streaming from her eyes, because it was the right thing to do.

Since that dreadful day at the Lear Fan plant, Moya has dedicated her energy and her time improving the lives of others in her community and in the aviation industry. She supports numerous organizations and has held leadership positions with groups as varied as President Reagan's International Private Enterprise Task Force, The National Technological Assessment Board, and The University of Nevada at Reno and its Foundation. She served on the Board of Trustees of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (now Trustee Emerita) and presently serves on me Board of the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Her lifelong love of the arts is also evident in her leadership and support of the Nevada Opera Association and the Nevada Festival Ballet. Her benevolent and philanthropic endeavors have also earned her six honorary doctorate degrees.

This 86-year-old, 5'2" dynamo is unstoppable. Today she shares her story-and her wisdom through speaking engagements and tours in which she urges ail young people, especially women, to strive to meet life's challenge with determination and excitement. She also authored an auto biography titled Bill and Moya Lear: An Unforgettable Flight.

In December 1980, during a time of stress and anxiety about the Lear Fan, Moya threw a huge Christmas party for the entire project team, their families and friends. As a finale, she strolled up to the podium and said. "I'd like to sing a song for you that I dedicate to your real boss who couldn't make it tonight because he's out there in the hangar working on his airplane!" Then she sang this song to the music of "If They Could See Me Now'"-

If Bill could see me now, just think how proud he'd be
The way we turned his dream into reality.
I wish that he were here to join in the fun,
And laugh at those who said it couldn't be done.

All I can say is WOW! What a terrific high.
As all together now, we'll watch our Lear Fan fly!
What a feeling. Holy Cow - He'd never believe it
If my Bill could see me now.

If he could see me now - my Darling dearest dear,
And view the final chapter of his great career.
He'd understand what all the shoutin's about,
If he could see the way his Lear Fan turned out!

All I can say is WOW! To think it's really real
The story of just how we signed the final deal!
(with the British!)
What a feeling - Holy Cow - He'd never believe it!
If he could see me - if Dad could see me -
If Bill could see me now.