"Margaret was admired by many friends at different places and in various fields of activity. Yet her reticence seldom allowed those friends much knowledge of the breadth of capabilities of this lovely lady." Thus begins an informal biography of Margaret Arnold Ruth Kimball Harsh, as prepared by her husband, Charles, after her death on February 13, 1975. Though Charles' sentiment is beautiful, it couldn’t be any more understated. Margaret was a spunky and progressive powerhouse of a woman, and she has recently become a heroine of mine.
Last April, I was contacted the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. Because the Phillips Library retains two other collections related to the Kimball family (Frank Reed Kimball Papers; Kimball Family Papers), Margaret's son, Richard, had recently donated a collection of Margaret's personal papers to them, as well. Margaret, however, had a very strong Lexington connection, especially in her early years. When asked if we would like to have this collection, I jumped at the chance.
Margaret Arnold Ruth Kimball was born in Boston, Massachusetts on December 1, 1906, and her family lived in Lexington on Massachusetts Avenue. To start with, Margaret was a talented artist. She took courses at Boston University, the Sorbonne in Paris, and the Boston Museum Art School. She also became a student of impressionist artist Philip Leslie Hale (1865–1931).
Margaret was also involved in Lexington organizations. She became a member of the Lexington Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) in 1926, and she was a founding member of the Lexington Arts and Crafts Society in 1935.
As if these credentials weren’t enough, Margaret’s most noteworthy hobby was flying, as an early aviatrix. Her entry into the world of flight is one of my favorite anecdotes, as told by her husband in Margaret's biography:
"Back in Lexington, at a party in late October 1930, the lion of the evening was Hank Harris, a handsome young sportsman pilot who flew the weather plane for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hoping to attract his attention, Margaret expressed her desire to fly, and Hank laughingly challenged her to show up the next morning at the East Boston airport. She did, and Hank arranged a demonstration flight with Bill Tanner at the Curtis (sic) Wright hanger (sic). Before noon she had signed up with Tanner for flight instruction, launching the colorful career of aviatrix Peggy Kimball."
Margaret proceed to attend the Curtiss Wright Flying School in Mineola, New York. She became a member of the National Aeronautics Association in 1933, the Soaring Society of America in 1935, and the 99 Club in New England (also known as the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots founded in 1929 and based in Washington, D.C.). And all of this essentially accomplished because of her refusal to lose a dare to Hank Harris….
Her list of credentials goes on, though. She earned a transport pilot's license in 1933, her non-commercial glider pilot’s license in 1934, her radio telephone operator license in 1936. In 1937, she passed tests qualifying her for the then highest rating in aviation, the "Non-Scheduled Instrument Rating" (NSIR). The rating was awarded by the Department of Commerce, and it enabled her to fly when the weather was so severe that it stopped every other aviator who did not hold this rating. To qualify, Margaret had to take a test in blind flying and radio-beam flying while under a hood in a plane that kept her from seeing anything but the instruments. She became one of three American women with an NSIR rating. Amelia Earhart was another.
According to Airwoman Magazine from 1935, Margaret was quite the figure in Lexington:
"Peggy Kimball has already done much to promote aviation in New England. In her home town of Lexington, she has painted an air marker on the roof of her home. She has conducted a series of aviation lectures there in connection with the town’s evening educational program. From her aviation class she has whipped an aviation club into shape and this group will doubtless contribute many flyers as a result of Miss Kimball’s efforts."
The magazine also discusses the Kimball Cup, which Margaret awarded each year to the "girl flier who does the most to foster aviation." The point system for the cup was quite multifaceted. Not only did it require that the applicant improve airports in a variety of ways, but the applicant also had to better themselves personally as a flier.
In 1939, Margaret married Charles Maxfield Harsh, who was a Professor of Psychology at Harvard. Soon after their marriage, Charles took a similar professorship at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and so the couple moved to Virginia.
Margaret's illustrious flying career ended abruptly in April 1940, when an Army flight doctor revoked her pilot’s license because she was pregnant. Due to what she viewed as unfair discrimination, she vowed never to renew her pilot’s license … and she never did.
She and Charles moved to Lincoln, Nebraska and had three children. The Lincoln school system was not pleased with Margaret's homeschooling methods, and so the family moved to Claremont, California in 1950.
In 1963, Margaret and Charles moved back to Boston. Margaret joined the Massachusetts Archaeological Society and studied the prehistory of New England. She became involved in a variety of activities and volunteer opportunities.
Charles retired in 1973, and he and Margaret moved back to California. The story of Margaret's vibrant life ends here, where she was diagnosed with lung cancer in October 1974. After complications, she passed away on February 13, 1975.
The story of Margaret's life as told through our recently acquired collection of personal items, including newspaper clippings, flying certifications, photographs, and a detailed scrapbook (which we hope to have conserved at NEDCC in the near future), is likely only the tip of the iceberg. As a woman born in the early twentieth century, fourteen years before women even obtained the right to vote, Margaret's spirit and determination are inspiring, and her legacy in Lexington has been lasting.
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.