Zoe Dell Nutter inspires Wright State dance students

Mrs. Nutter (left) with scholarship recipient, sophomore, Jacob Shade (right)

By Jim Hannah


As 102-year-old Zoe Dell Nutter watched the leotard-clad Wright State University dance majors go through their paces, Nutter’s days of dancing with the San Francisco Ballet bubbled to the surface of her memory.

And as the 25 students thronged around Nutter following the class at the Creative Arts Center, they peppered her with questions about those days.

“I’m glad I had a chance to do it,” she said after applauding the students’ performance in class. “All I think I can tell you is it’s worth it.”

Nutter, a dancer and a model, later became a commercial pilot and philanthropist. Her appearance at the Intermediate Ballet class on Nov. 9 coincided with an announcement that she has established the Zoe Dell Lantis Nutter Dance Scholarship, an endowed scholarship that promises to help fund the future education of Wright State dance students indefinitely.

“She still has an extreme passion for dance and is supporting what we all do here at Wright State,” said Jennifer Buckwalter, assistant dean for community and student engagement at the College of Liberal Arts. “We’re very thankful for her and her generosity.”

Buckwalter showed the students a pair of pink ballet slippers, softened and frayed from use. The slippers, displayed in a small glass case, had been worn by Nutter during her days with the San Francisco Ballet.

“If these shoes could talk,” said Buckwalter.

Nutter grew up in Medford, Oregon, and after high school moved to San Francisco, where she danced for the ballet from 1937 to 1940. In 1939, aviation executives approached her about promoting commercial aviation at the Golden Gate International Exposition.

At age 20, she was featured in a 1939 LIFE magazine article about the exposition, when she was dubbed the most photographed woman in the world. She served as official hostess of the exposition and would fly 100,000 passenger miles to meet mayors and governors around the nation demonstrating the safety and comforts of air travel.

After a short film career with Paramount Pictures, Nutter joined the United Service Organizations to entertain troops during World War II. When surgery ended her dancing career, she got her pilot’s license and would log over 2,000 flight hours, earning commercial, instrument, and multi-engine ratings.

In the early 1960s, she took a job with Piper Aircraft, Inc., one of the main manufacturers of private airplanes. President William T. Piper, known as the Henry Ford of aviation for making inexpensive, simple-to-operate aircraft, wanted her to be his spokesperson for general aviation, as she had been for commercial aviation.

She demonstrated aircraft and sold flight training for Piper’s subsidiary Monarch Aviation, which operated a base and flight school in Monterey, California. Her work helped improve flight safety and train the increasing numbers of private pilots. In addition, she helped found the local chapter of the Ninety-Nines, the Organization of Licensed Women Pilots.

When Piper needed a new trainer plane, she flew to Dayton, Ohio, to evaluate a new aircraft. She was assisted in Dayton by Ervin J. Nutter, who built parts for the plane as chief executive and president of Elano Corp., which made tubing and engine components. The couple would marry in 1965.

“Mrs. Nutter is an inspiration to our dance majors,” said Gina Walther, associate professor of dance. “This scholarship is so special because it is dedicated to them.”

The first recipient of the Nutter scholarship will be sophomore dance student Jacob Shade of Lebanon, Ohio. Shade began dancing at age 13, taking a recreational dance class at the urging of a friend. He later attended the Butler Tech career center in Hamilton, which had a dance program. He came to Wright State intending to major in English, but attended a dance audition and got a scholarship.

Last summer, Shade and fellow dance major Jaelyn Blake were selected to receive a full scholarship to attend a two-week summer “intensive” in Los Angeles run by Dwight Rhoden, an internationally acclaimed dancer and one of the most sought-after choreographers in the business.

A native of Dayton who began dancing at age 17, Rhoden has performed with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC), Les Ballet Jazz De Montreal, and as a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His work has been presented in more than 20 countries, filling some of the most prestigious theaters around the globe.

“It’s very prestigious,” said Walther. “What I think is so special about his choreography is that it really marries form and feeling. His work is technically probably the most challenging you will ever do or have ever done, but it also has great heart and feeling to it. I think it will help their dancing in all of the classes.”

After graduating, Shade would like to be part of a dance company and eventually teach choreography. He said the Nutter scholarship reaffirms his hard work and inspires him to keep working to reach his dreams.


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Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Hannah at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com

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