ALL YOU NEED to know about the Congressional Gold Medal is that the first honoree was George Washington.

The list of recipients honored since for "distinguished achievements and contributions" reads like a Who's Who of modern history: Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Winston Churchill, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II ... well, you get the idea.

And then there's the small, soft-spoken, 86-year-old woman who answered the door of her Berkeley residence the other day. Maybe you don't know about Maggie Gee.

"You would have no idea from meeting Maggie that she's the powerhouse that she is," said Berkeley Councilmember Susan Wengraf. "She's had an extraordinary lifetime adventure."

Where to begin? She worked as a shipyard welder and draftsman at the outset of World War II, learned to fly a plane when she was 18, earned degrees in physics and mathematics at UC Berkeley, lived four years in Europe and worked for nearly three decades as an accomplished physicist at Livermore Lab.

And none of those is the reason for which she was chosen.

Gee was honored this year by Congress and President Barack Obama as one of the groundbreaking members of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, who served in World War II.

Gee explained her unlikely participation — she was one of only two Chinese-Americans to qualify — as if it were a natural evolution, part of some grand scheme she envisioned years earlier.

"When I was growing up," she said, "my heroes were Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. I loved to watch airplanes fly."

Female pilots were rare in 1941, when Gee, a Berkeley native, used her earnings as a draftsman at Mare Island Naval Shipyard to pay for flying lessons in Nevada. ("With the war going on, private planes weren't allowed to fly within 150 miles of the West Coast," she explained of the location.)

The WASPs were recruiting there, and Gee recognized opportunity when it beckoned.

"There were only about 1,100 of us chosen out of 25,000 who applied," she said. "It was an exceptional group of women. We all got the same training as the men."

Even if some of the men were less than supportive.

Gee's story is recounted in a children's book, "Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee," by Marissa Moss, recently published by Berkeley-based Tricycle Press. Moss said unearthing details of the obstacles Gee and other women fliers overcame was like pulling teeth.

"Everything has to be drawn out of her," Moss said. "She's reluctant to talk about any negative experience — when she was growing up in Berkeley, she wasn't allowed to swim in the public pool because she was Chinese-American. I had to pry to get her to admit any of the discrimination she faced from male pilots."

Gee still is hesitant to embellish.

"Some of the men weren't sure we were ready for this," she said. "Women wouldn't put up with that now, but that was a different time."

The WASPs flew domestic, noncombat assignments, often ferrying planes to destinations where they were needed, but that didn't make them immune to danger. Thirty-eight were killed in the line of duty.

Gee primarily flew training planes, instructing male pilots in instrument flying and co-piloting a B-17 bomber in simulated dogfights. And then, almost as quickly as opportunity had arrived, it vanished. The WASPs were disbanded in 1944.

Gee said she didn't fly again. With male pilots returning from the war, there were few job opportunities for women, but she has no regrets.

"Flying was something I did," she said, "and then I moved on."

Her focus today is political activism. Her passion is social progress.

"She has a much deeper, broader life than what happened in the WASPs," Moss said.

When the Berkeley City Council designated Aug. 30 as Maggie Gee Day, an eight-paragraph proclamation touched on her breadth of civic activities.

Between the first "whereas" and the closing "therefore," Gee was applauded as "an icon of public service" for serving on the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee, the 1992 Democratic Party Platform Committee and the California State Democratic Executive Board. She was recognized as a past Berkeley Public Works Commissioner, housing advisory commissioner and board member of the Berkeley Community Fund.

Wengraf presented the proclamation at Gee's 86th birthday party, along with a congratulatory note from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and an American flag that had flown over the Capitol.

"The party was astonishing," Moss said. "Everybody in Berkeley politics was there."

Well, sure. How often do you get to share the company of someone in the same club as George Washington?