Mary Edith “Mel” Lillis, a Kansas City native and resident, was a pioneer in spearfishing and skin diving. She started the Kansas City Citizen Club and became a competitive spearfisher in the early years of the sport. Mel also started the Underwater Hunter Safety Corps and began working on area scheduling SCUBA events. She formed the Midwest Diving Council made up of clubs from Missouri and Oklahoma and represented the newly formed Midwest Council at the official formation of the Underwater Society of America in Chicago. In 1960, she went to a special meeting of the Society in New Orleans on Free Diving Rules and requested
that Competitive Skin Diving-SCUBA Division be added to the Underwater Society and that they create a position of Vice President in charge of SCUBA Competitions. From 1961 to 1970, Lillis served the Underwater Society as Inter-Council Coordinator; Secretary; Chief Archivist; Historian, and she represented the Diving Council and the Oklahoma Council of Divers. She held office in both organizations as
Secretary, Vice President; as well offices in two local diving clubs.
In 1961, the team of Lillis and June Poplar won the first International SCUBA Triathlon competitions in New Orleans. Local, state, and regional competitions continued and Lillis remained the top national competitor for the next five years, retiring from competitive diving in California.
In 1963, in Philadelphia, Lillis became the first woman recipient of the NOGI and until 1983; she was the only woman to be honored in the Sports and Education category. Soon after becoming a NOGI Fellow, Mel was elected Executive Secretary and has served in that volunteer capacity for the past forty years. In 2005, the title of “Executive Secretary” was changed to “NOGI Awards Director”. Mel’s commitment and contributions to scuba diving were further recognized by her induction into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 2000.
The Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences (AUAS) and the Fellowship owes Mel Lillis a great debt of thanks for her nearly half a century of volunteerism. The Academy and the NOGI Award truly benefits from her continuing commitment and dedication to the NOGI Awards.