COOS BAY — Marshfield High School didn't have an aviation class when Elgen Long was a student there in the 1940s. But it did have a typing class, which helped propel Long to a flying career that included World War II sorties.
He flew on to become the first pilot to fly solo around the world over the north and south poles.
Long's achievements have served as a major building block for a new history course at his alma mater. They also have helped pave the way for the 82-year-old's return to Coos Bay to pick up one of the few things missing from his list of accomplishments: a high school diploma.
He can thank history teacher Jeff Eberwein, who's been at Marshfield for nine years. One of his first years here, Eberwein noticed a picture of Long in the principal's office. The man was standing in front of his plane. Curious, he learned more about Long's connection to the school and what he'd done.
"That's when it started making me wonder why we didn't pay attention to his accomplishments," he said.
Eberwein finally tracked him down last year, at the same time he started an aviation history class. Eberwein asked Long, who lives in Reno, Nev., if he'd come to the school and accept an honorary degree. Long quickly accepted.
Long has served as a rather prominent figure in the course. Students have studied his career, as well as his work researching Amelia Earhart's final flight.
"It makes the town more interesting," said Jessica Olson, a junior in Eberwein's class.
Brittany Ware said she liked learning about someone whose accomplishments didn't occur on a sports field, a sentiment shared by others.
Long was honored at an assembly this morning in the Marshfield Auditorium. It was the second time he took the school's stage, the first time during a Christmas choir concert in 1941.
The community is invited to a second ceremony tonight during halftime of the boys basketball game. The game starts at 7 p.m.
Long moved to Marshfield with his family in 1937, shortly before the high school was built. He spent several years in the Harding Building, before moving into the new school for his sophomore year. He remembers watching the construction of the West Gym from a mechanical drawing classroom.
Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Long joined the crush of Americans flocking to recruitment halls. He was only 15, but his parents convinced recruiters he was 17 so he could join the U.S. Navy.
Despite his young age, Long's first commander selected him as company yeoman, a records keeper, because he was the only recruit out of 150 who could type.
The appointment put him on a fast track to becoming an aviation radioman and navigator, flying on more than 100 combat missions in the Pacific theater.
After the war, Long took a job with an air freight carrier, and became a pilot. He set more than a dozen world records, including the first solo pole flight in 1971.
He received the Gold Air Medal in Paris, and on the flight home, he had a conversation with his late wife, Marie.
"My wife said aviation has been good to us, what can we do for aviation?" he recalled.
They decided to answer the question of what happened to the great heroine of the skies: Amelia Earhart. Long remembered hawking newspapers that came out when her plane crashed into the Pacific in 1937. He points out that few women in the 20th century captivated the country like her. And her disappearance captivated him. His brown eyes gleam when the subject turns to Earhart.
"It's the greatest mystery in all of aviation," he said.
The couple spent more than 30 years researching her last flight, concluding her plane ran out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific near Howland Island. In recent years, Long has been searching the sea floor for the plane's remains.
Long returned to Coos Bay over the years to visit family and also served as one of the grand marshals for the city's centennial parade in 1974. He also spoke to a class at Marshfield High School in the 1970s, but the school never formally recognized his accomplishments — until today.