Nora Tyson: A Patriotic TrailblazerNov 24, 2020 09:20PM ● By Suzie Agrillo
Nora Tyson’s path to a career in the U.S. Navy was not exactly planned. Upon graduation from Vanderbilt University in 1979 with a degree in English, she received a life-changing phone call from a Navy recruiter. Fast forward 38 years, and she retired from the Navy as a three-star Vice Admiral.
How would you describe your diet and exercise habits?
Tyson is a role model for a whole generation of women. In 2010, she took command of the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group, making her the first woman to command a carrier strike group. In 2013, she was promoted to Vice Admiral and named Deputy Commander of the United States Fleet Forces Command. When Tyson was installed as commander of the Third Fleet in 2015, she also became the first woman to lead a U.S. Navy ship fleet.
At the time Tyson was first commissioned, women had only recently been given the chance for sea duty aboard support and auxiliary ships, and they were not allowed to serve on submarines or combat ships. Despite these limitations, Tyson was able to break the glass ceiling during her Navy career. “I was very fortunate from a timing perspective, in that things opened up for women at the right time in my career,” she observes.
“When the opportunity to go to flight school and Navy aviation presented itself, I took advantage of it. I applied and got accepted to flight school,” Tyson explains. “That really opened the door initially, which led to my having the opportunity to command an aviation squadron; to command an amphibious assault ship; to be a carrier strike group commander; and to be a fleet commander. I was the first female aviator to do some of these things, due to law and policy changes which opened the door for women.”
The recipient of numerous awards, one of the most meaningful to her is the Humanitarian Service Medal she received for post Hurricane Katrina rescue and relief efforts performed while commanding the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan. This included launching helicopters and picking people off roofs, as well as setting up air traffic control stations at the Superdome for all the helicopters in the area. “It was challenging and surreal because it was so unscripted. We were doing everything we could to help our fellow Americans,” she relates.
In light of her many achievements and her role in the Navy as a trailblazing aviator, Tyson is extremely humble. She tends to “hide her light under a bushel”, downplaying her talent and accomplishments. “I was brought up by my parents to be rather humble. I’m not one to toot my own horn. It’s not something I admire in other people, so I don’t do that,” she says.
Tyson believes you succeed in this line of work by striving to be the best at what you do, because teams depend on you. She also stresses the importance of relationships and attributes her success in part to her ability to build relationships with her flight crew and others.
After 38 years in the Navy, Tyson wants to give back during her retirement. She intends to make an impact in Tucson by volunteering. Her plans include volunteering for two nonprofits that empower youth to build strength of character by learning golf, First Tee and the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf.
Tyson has never looked back since she embarked on her career in service to our country and she is passionate about her choice. She comments, “When I think about regrets, none of them are about going into the Navy. I can’t imagine what I could have done that would have been more rewarding. How fortunate I am. So few people have the opportunity to serve their country in uniform. Why me?”
What are five words that people close to you would choose to describe you?
Optimistic, dedicated, honest, patriotic, fun-loving.
What qualities do you believe make someone a good leader?
Character, integrity, honesty, empathy, dedication and hard work. If you don’t have the respect of those you lead, in my mind, you’re not a good leader.
What elements do you think are essential to a thriving community?
People caring about each other, having respect for each other, learning from each other and a desire to work together to make the community and the world a better place for future generations.
What can we do as individuals to make our community a desirable place?
We can help those who may not be as fortunate as you are to enable them to succeed in life. It’s not just about giving them food or money. It is also about giving them what they need to succeed personally and professionally—instilling values and skills in young people.
What do you enjoy most about Tucson?
The weather, the beauty of the environment and the people. We like to look at the mountains and cactus. It’s easy to find serenity and calm out here. And we’ve met a lot of nice people.
What tips do you have regarding retirement?
Do whatever you want to do that makes you happy. Life is short. Learn to say “no”, and don’t overcommit. Take time for yourself.
How would you describe your diet and exercise habits?
We walk in the morning while listening to audiotapes. We also hit balls or play golf four to five times a week. Our diet is healthy. I can’t tell you the last time I had something fried. We eat a lot of vegetables and fresh food. We’re not big dessert eaters. We do drink red wine.
What books do you recommend?
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles; The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman; The Source by James Michener; The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.
What is your mantra?
Don’t go to bed at night until you’ve learned something.
Do you have a favorite quote?
Yes, this one is read at virtually every Navy retirement ceremony: “I can imagine no more rewarding career, and any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: I served in the United States Navy.” ~John F. Kennedy
Suzie Agrillo is a freelance writer in Tucson and a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings Magazine. She focuses on writing about the arts, inspirational people and the human connection. Connect at [email protected]
Natural Awakenings would like to thank Wayne Tyson and the United States Navy for their assistance with photographs for this article.