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Jo Duffy: 1943-2019

We lost Jo Duffy on February 22, 2019. Jo was a woman who frequently asked, “How can I help?” and then responded, “Count me in.” She will be deeply missed by the Santa Barbara community.

Born in Wisconsin, Jo moved to Southern California as a child. She attended UCSB, graduating with a degree in biology in 1965. She moved to San Diego to acquire her laboratory technician certification, but when a job opened up at Cottage Hospital, Jo jumped at the chance to return.

A Santa Barbara treasure, Jo quietly volunteered her time wherever she saw that help was needed. She worked for more than a dozen nonprofits, including Crisis Helpline, and for literacy, voting, and flying organizations. Jo was considered a “gem” for her skill and commitment.

Jo worked with the League of Women Voters, helping people register to vote and then again on Election Day when she volunteered at polling places.

When Jo was asked to do lab work with the nonprofit Aeromedicos, she was flown in small planes to remote areas of Baja to provide medical support. Once Jo started flying in small planes, her life took off ​— ​literally! 

Back in Santa Barbara, Jo got her pilot’s license and commercial license. She soon bought her own beloved Cessna and flew with Aeromedicos for more than 10 years. 

With her own airplane, Jo’s horizons expanded. She loved nature. She flew baby eaglets to sanctuaries to keep them safe. She helped set up the “Eagle Cams” on Santa Cruz Island so scientists and bird lovers could watch as the baby eagles grew and took off on their own solo flights.

Jo flew for Lighthawk, an organization of more than 200 pilots who fly to protect the environment. She mapped oil spills, tracked migrating whales, and monitored the health of the shoreline and its wildlife. She was also a search and rescue pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary for 10 years.

The Santa Barbara Flying Club remembers Jo for tirelessly going beyond the requirements of the offices she held, recruiting many new members, and being known for her “Count me in!” enthusiasm.

Photo: Paul WellmanJune 1, 2011 Great piloting skills by Jo Duffy on a windy day.

Her support for new pilots was legendary. Many a new pilot remembers Jo standing on the field to watch their solo flights and congratulating them when they landed. One of her favorite things to do while confined to a wheelchair with a badly broken leg was to go to the airport, drink iced tea, and watch her fellow pilots take off and land.

Jo loved introducing people to the adventure of flying. When the Experimental Flying Club recruited pilots to take Young Eagles ages 8-17 for their first-ever airplane flights, Jo was one of the first to sign up. She was also a member of the Ninety-Nines ​— ​a women’s flying organization founded in 1922 by Amelia Earhart ​— ​where she actively encouraged women of all ages to take to the air.

Often, Jo would call a friend or turn to a fellow volunteer and offer a plane ride to Santa Ynez to refuel or fly down to Camarillo for lunch. One time, Jo flew with a friend to check out the Cuyama airport. When they got ready to land, the runway was covered with rabbits and some huge weeds. As any pilot will tell you, obstacles on the runway can be treacherous. Jo announced, “I’ve got this!” and strafed the runway a couple of times, landing safely and dodging only the weeds!

One of her sisters remarked, “We loved it when Jo got into flying. She would fly to visit whenever she got a chance.” Jo organized frequent family reunions to keep her extensive family connected.

“Jo loved anything that flies or is in the sky,” a friend recalled. She led caravans of friends up Camino Cielo at midnight to observe comets or a meteor shower. She was also an avid birdwatcher. However, one time, on a birdwatching visit to Lake Los Carneros, friends caught Jo focusing her binoculars on the tail numbers of airplanes, not birds, flying overhead. Plane-spotting apparently outranked birdwatching.

Photo: Courtesy

Jo loved her friends forever and kept in touch with friends from her childhood as well as those she saw daily.

Family and friends surrounded Jo with love when she passed away from cancer. To say she will be missed is an understatement. Jo Duffy leaves a void in our community that will be difficult to fill.

Jo leaves two sons, Michael and Patrick, and grandchildren Jacob and Keeley. She also leaves sisters Charlene and Penny, brothers Joseph and Phil, and a long list of nieces and nephews, including her beloved triplets.

Whenever you see a plane flying overhead, think about Jo and her work, and maybe ask yourself, “How can I help?” 

There are so many wonderful memories of Jo there was not enough space to include them all.


Come and share your own Jo stories at a Celebration of Life for Jo Duffy at Shoreline Park on Saturday, May 4, 2-5 p.m.

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