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When Shari Rood turned in her application last June as an internal candidate for Southwest Airlines' next flight attendant class, the woman processing the paperwork called to see whether there was a mistake.

There didn't seem to be enough digits in Rood's employee number.

Rood laughed and assured her that, yes, she was employee No. 5956 - compared with today's new hires, who number in the 138000s.

"She said, 'Really?' " Rood says. "And I said, 'Yeah. You're wondering if I'm crazy, right?' "

You see, Rood was 20 when she joined Southwest Airlines, working the ticket counter, departure gates and helping skycaps at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in 1983.

She hoped to be a flight attendant one day, but four daughters put her inflight dreams in a 35-year holding pattern.

Now that each of her millennials has graduated from Southern Methodist University, the 56-year-old's career has finally taken flight.

On Feb. 1, she earned her flight attendant wings at Southwest's training and operational support campus at Dallas Love Field - along with 45 much younger flight attendant graduates.

"This is so amazing," she says, hugging Southwest flight attendant Linda Clark, her friend since high school who flew in from Phoenix to present wings that say Shari - pronounced Shur-REE.

Three of her daughters were on hand to celebrate their mom's glory, each wearing a sparkly red headband with hearts bouncing from springs, in keeping with Southwest's quirky, love-in-the-air theme. The acorns apparently didn't fall far from the tree.

"She's been talking about this for as long as I can remember," says 25-year-old Kenna Sperco, who works in e-commerce sales for PepsiCo in Plano. "We could not be more excited for her."

Rood, who looks like her daughters' elder sister, was greeted with whoops and hollers from the audience as she stood to be recognized for her accomplishment.

The Southwest way

About a third of Rood's classmates were existing employees - just not as existing as she is.

Southwest encourages employees to start fresh within the company, and plenty do.

But most people who've been around 35 years are thinking about retirement, not launching a new career, says Julie Weber, Southwest's chief people officer. "It's just a really fun story that she has chosen to take that journey as a flight attendant and love on our customers even more.

"We'll take that contribution as long as we can."

Getting into a Southwest flight attendant class is harder than getting into Harvard University.

Last year, 28,518 people applied for 1,207 Southwest flight attendant positions. That's a 4 percent acceptance rate. Harvard's is 5 percent.

"We hire tough because we're looking for those special qualities that make our flight attendants so famous," says Weber.

Online pay surveys indicate that the "average" Southwest flight attendant makes about $65,000 annually, but individual compensation varies significantly depending on seniority, hours worked, profit-sharing and other factors.

While Southwest won't confirm that information, its spokesman is quick to point out that Southwest's benefits are a flight above, including medical, dental, a dollar-for-dollar 401k match for up to 9.3 percent, profit-sharing and unlimited, space-available travel on Southwest.

Internal candidates have a leg up regardless of age, Weber says. "They understand how much emphasis we place on incredible hospitality and really taking care of our customers. We call it living the Southwest way, which is having that warrior spirit, that servant heart and that fun-loving attitude."

Rood's been living the Southwest way just about as long as the carrier has been flying Phoenix routes.

She went to travel school after one semester in college, then became a corporate travel agent at a large company in Phoenix for two years. She heard about Southwest's kooky, people-first reputation and thought, "I'm in."

Grounded for years

So six months after Southwest added Phoenix routes, Rood hopped aboard the customer service department and never left.

She did apply for inflight service in 1985, but she learned that she'd be based in Houston. She had just bought a home, so she gave up the idea.

Then came the girls, now 30, 28, 25 and 23.

Rood turned down promotions because she loved the flexibility of trading hours with co-workers. Until this move, she was her department's second-most senior employee, so she got her pick of duties and hours. She spent her more recent years in the customer service command center.

"I could cry when I think about Southwest," Rood says, her voice cracking. "I was totally able to raise all four of my kids. I never missed out on any event in their lives. I was (parent/teacher) vice president and room mom for every one of my kids. That's why I never went anywhere."

But in the back of her mind, she longed to be a flight attendant like so many of her friends.

In June, Rood caught wind that Southwest would be taking internal applications for the next class. After being encouraged by her daughters, she decided to go for it.

Rood's application included her first-ever resume, which one of her daughters put together.

"This was a life decision for me, and if I hadn't had the OK and the support of the girls, I wouldn't have done it," she says.

She was notified in December that she'd made the grade and would start training on Jan. 7 at the new training complex across from the airline's headquarters.

"The four weeks of training was probably the toughest thing I've ever done," says the woman who's given birth four times.

There were countless hours of nightly homework, minute details to memorize, little sleep and plenty of stress. She often wondered why she was giving up comfort, security and departmental seniority for this.

"My flight attendant girlfriends had told me how tough it was, but it was even harder than they let on," she says. "I'd text my kids every night about how tough it was."

"All of us got a little bit of that, yeah," says Kaci Rood, the youngest who's finishing her physician assistant degree in Phoenix. "We just tried to be encouraging. 'You're more than capable. You've been with the company 35 years, so you know what to do.'"

"She's great dealing with customers," adds Keelie Luttrell, a D/FW Re/Max Realtor. "And this is going to be the same thing."

Without getting too personal, Rood says she took a pay cut, but money isn't why she made the career shift.

Rood spent the day before graduation in the air.

"It was great. It was long. I left the hotel at 8 a.m. and got back to the hotel at 8:30 at night," she says. "Three different crews. Three different flights. Spilled nothing," she says, then adds for emphasis, "nothing. No major emergencies, no irregular operations. I worked with really great people."

Earlier this month, Rood completed her first on-her-own flights operating from her temporary base in Oakland, Calif. Come March, she'll be based at Love Field. She's over the moon about that because two daughters live here and she can easily commute home to Phoenix.

Rood marked her first official day by showing she clearly has no intention of acting her age.

The 5-foot-3 powerball climbed into an overhead bin before passengers in Ontario boarded their flight to Oakland, so that a fellow crew member could snap her photograph.

"It's been a blast so far," she says.

Look out, Southwest passengers, here comes Shari.

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