Dr. Ralph Cox

Dr. Ralph Cox, seen here about 10 years ago, as a dentist who barely practiced before becoming a military pilot at the start of World War II, then starting his own company, US Overseas Airline.

Cox family photo

Dr. Ralph Cox gave up his first career. He went through four years of dental school and graduated in 1938, then started to practice — briefly.

“He said it was too boring — it wasn’t enough for him,” explains his grandson, Ian Harris. “That’s when he went into the Navy and became a pilot, and trained other pilots too.”

His daughter, Maureen Harris, 60, says her dad was fascinated with flight almost from birth — which, in 1914, wasn’t so long after the Wright brothers’ first airplane flight in 1903.

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Cox grew up in Pittsburgh, “And as a little boy, his dad would point out barnstormers in the air, and say, ‘Let’s go follow them,’” Maureen says. The family would pile into a car to chase an adventure.

But Ralph Waldo Emerson Cox Sr. lived most of his life in Cape May County, where he chased many more adventures before he died last month, at 97. Friends say he had been in good shape until shortly before that.

At the start of World War II, Cox’s Navy job was flying anti-submarine patrols along the Atlantic coast. But he was discharged by 1941 to fly military supply missions.

And just after the war, Cox got started on his real second career. He started a company that later became US Overseas Airlines, based at today’s Cape May County Airport in Lower Township. At its height in the 1950s, USOA “had 16 airplanes ... flying all over world,” says Dr. Joe Salvatore, the director of the Naval Air Station Wildwood, an aviation museum based in USOA’s old hangar.

But in 1964, federal aviation officials shut down USOA and other similar airlines across the country, citing alleged safety problems. Cox fought the move for decades, in courts and in Congress, and always insisted that “in 18 years of flying, we never scratched a passenger,” says his daughter, who still gets emotional about her dad having that second career taken from him.

“He would say, ‘The federal government put us on a starvation diet — then accused us of losing weight,’” Maureen Harris adds.

Cox’s next move was to open the Wildwood Canadian Campground in Lower Township. He ran it into the 1990s, with family help, but he always wanted to run his airline instead.

When he wasn’t fighting the feds, he was collecting everything from classic cars to streetcars, says Salvatore, Cox’s friend for 20 years. He remembers Cox, “the collector of collectors,” showing off his treasures in a museum in the USOA hangar — now the NASW museum.

When Salvatore first got to the hangar, he remembers his friend had a dentist’s chair there — a chair he’d use to work on the teeth of his airline workers who needed it. So apparently Dr. Cox didn’t give up his first career completely to pursue the others.

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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