Ahead of her time

Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter has been a trailblazer for more than a century

Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter dancing at the Golden Gate 
International Exposition in 1939 at San Francisco’s Treasure Island. (Photo courtesy of Wright State University Archives)

If there was ever a role model for American women, it’s Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter. Dancer, pilot, inventor, philanthropist. Nutter has done it all.

That drive to make the most out of life began when Nutter was a young girl in Medford, Oregon. Determined to learn ballet, Nutter began taking lessons from a dance teacher who lived across the street. When she turned 18, she moved to San Francisco to begin a career as a professional dancer.

Nutter became a member of the San Francisco Ballet and later landed a job as the theme girl of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on nearby Treasure Island. As she traveled across the country promoting the exposition, Nutter was so frequently photographed that Life magazine dubbed her “the most photographed girl in the world.”

Those cross-country treks took place on trains, automobiles, and airplanes. During a time when few American men — let alone women — were flying on commercial airlines, Nutter was flying the friendly skies from coast to coast.

“I never was scared,” she said. “It was wonderful.”

Nutter became so enamored with flying that she earned her pilot’s license. When it came time to test for her multi-engine instrument rating, Nutter went to Midway airport in Chicago, regarded by pilots as the most challenging airport to earn a rating. She knew that if she earned her rating at Midway, it would earn her more respect as a woman in the male-dominated field of aviation.

Nutter also served as a spokesperson for Piper Aircraft, logging more than 100,000 miles as she promoted air transportation all over the world. During a business trip to Dayton, she met Ervin J. Nutter, the owner of Elano Corporation, which made tubing and engine components for the aerospace industry. She married Nutter in 1965.

Nutter directed promotions for Elano’s small aircraft division and served as one of the company’s pilots. She also spearheaded the development of a new manifold, hiring the engineers who helped redesign it.

When she took the manifold to the Reading Air Show, someone told her, “That’s the best replacement part we’ve got.”

Nutter’s contributions to the world of aviation have enabled her to meet many other pioneers in the field. She served for years on the Board of Trustees for the National Aviation Hall of Fame and was the organization’s first female president. In 2008, she was inducted as a Living Legend of Aviation.

Nutter recalled the first time she met another Living Legend of Aviation, John Travolta. As a young boy, Travolta was traveling with his mother and encountered Nutter in an airport.

“He was such a cute kid and a gentleman,” Nutter remembered. She and Travolta still keep in touch and remain friends to this day.

Nutter holds her pink ballet slippers, displayed in a small glass case, worn during her days with the San Francisco Ballet. 
(Photo by Jennifer Buckwalter)

Nutter’s home is filled with photos and mementos of her extraordinary life. Sitting on one bookshelf is a photo of Nutter with former First Lady Laura Bush. It was taken in 2006 on the evening Nutter received the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal, a prestigious honor given by the Ford’s Theatre Society to those who exemplify the character of Abraham Lincoln.

When Nutter first arrived in Dayton, Wright State did not yet exist as a university. As the institution grew, so did the involvement and support of Nutter and her late husband, Erv. When the university’s arena first opened its doors in 1990, it was named in honor of Ervin J. Nutter.

After her husband’s passing in 2000, Nutter continued to be a champion for Wright State and its students. She is a generous sponsor of the university’s annual ArtsGala, a scholarship fundraiser for students in the fine and performing arts.

In 2017, she established the Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter Dance Scholarship to help students studying dance at Wright State. “It’s important for young people to have that opportunity,” said Nutter, who enjoys coming to campus to meet her scholarship recipients and watch them rehearse.

At 103, Nutter is still an inspiration to everyone she meets — from the young people pursuing a career in dance to the modern woman making her mark in today’s world.

“She has inspired me to not put limitations on myself and to not let others put limitations on me,” said Jennifer Buckwalter, assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “She’s shown that with some determination and passion, the sky’s the limit.”

As she reflected on more than a century of living, Nutter said, “I did all the things I wanted to do. You have a certain amount of time you’re going to be here; you might as well do it right.”

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