Wally Funk proves it’s never too late to achieve a dream

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In this relentless round-the-clock news cycle that defines our lives, Wally Funk may have already been relegated to the rearview mirror. She shouldn’t be. Her name might be the perfect mantra for us, an incantation chanted when, in despair, we’re ready to surrender.

After decades of pushing and prodding and waiting, Funk finally made it into space. She was one of four people on Blue Origin’s first passenger flight. At 82, that meant she was the oldest person to head into the wide blue yonder, beating a John Glenn record set almost 25 years ago, at the ripe old age of 77.

There’s a big difference between Glenn’s flight and Funk’s 10-minute journey, though. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, and his 1998 return marked his second trip to space. Funk, though eminently qualified, never got the chance until a billionaire invited her along.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1961, the 21-year-old Funk joined the “Woman in Space” program that hoped to send a woman into space. Privately funded by a physician and flight surgeon, it mirrored NASA’s better-known Mercury program. Of the 19 women who enrolled, 13 graduated after passing the same stringent tests as their male counterparts. Funk was at the top of that class. Nevertheless, not a single woman stepped into a rocket, and the program eventually folded.

That career disappointment wasn’t the first for Funk. She wanted to become a commercial airline pilot and was turned down for that, too, most likely because she was a woman. Then in 1979, when NASA began accepting female astronaut candidates, she applied for the job — four times — but was never selected.

Despite these rejections, Funk went on to work as a safety inspector in the Federal Aviation Administration and as an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the first woman to do so in both roles. Then Jeff Bezos invited her on his flight.

Say what you want about the guy and his phallic-shaped rocket, but the Amazon founder has a way of tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of his times. In fulfilling Funk’s lifelong ambition, he highlighted what all of us secretly hope: It’s never too late to achieve a dream.

I suspect Funk’s 60-year struggle isn’t that unusual. Success, however you define or measure it, is not a straight line that marches ever upward. It takes detours, curves into hairpin turns, spikes and plummets again. But now, as we live longer and healthier lives, we have more time to get where we’re going.

Forbes magazine recently profiled Liana Munro, a 77-year-old ballroom dance champion who had dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina as a child living in Santiago de Cuba. Life, however, got in the way of that goal. A communist revolution on the island. Permanent separation from her parents. A struggle to survive, followed by marriage, a career in sales, and children.

Then, in retirement her friends gave Munro a gift certificate to take ballroom dance classes. At 63, she began studying salsa, rumba and mambo — the dances of her childhood — but also the Viennese waltz, foxtrot and tango. When her teacher enrolled her in a competition, she won. And she kept winning.

Another woman, Vera Jiji of New York, revived her “first passion” after retirement, when she retrieved her cello, a high school graduation gift, from the back of her closet. Now 93, she plays in two musical groups at the 92nd Street Y. She’s also published a book, “Cello Playing for Music Lovers,” which is sold in more than 20 countries. Who would’ve guessed?

These inspiring stories remind me of that Elton John song from “The Lion King”:

Never too late to fight the fight

Never too late to cheat the night

Never too late to win the day

Never too late to break away

Thank you, Wally Funk, for proving it’s never too late.

Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at avecianasuarez@gmail.com or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.

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