Friday, July 16, 2010
The final resting place of Amelia Earhart may yet remain a mystery, but the city of Atchison, Kansas is proud to claim her beginning. Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 in the home of her maternal grandfather, Alfred Gideon Otis, a former federal judge and president of the Atchison Savings Bank. The daughter of a railroad attorney, Amelia and her younger sister “Pidge” spent much of their childhood in various towns, including Atchison and Kansas City, Ks. She attended six high schools in four years, finally graduating from Chicago's Hyde Park High School in June 1915. Earhart always considered Atchison her hometown. The house in which she was born now houses the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, which claims to represent “the most tangible remaining link with the famous female aviator.” The Gothic Revival cottage, which looks out over the west bank of the Missouri River, is open year round to visitors.
According to the official Amelia Earhart website, maintained by her family, Earhart was not impressed the first time she encountered a plane at age 10. But a decade later, she took her first flight and was hooked. Six months after her initial flying lesson on January 3, 1921, she bought her first plane. With her second-hand Kinner Airster two-seater biplane she nicknamed “Canary” for its bright yellow paint, she set her first women's aviator record by flying to an altitude of 14,000 feet.
In the years following, Earhart continued to set records. In May 1932, she became the first woman, and only second person, to fly solo across the Atlantic (see news report in the Atchison Globe). With this flight, she also gained recognition as the first person to cross the Atlantic twice by air nonstop and for setting a record for the fastest Atlantic crossing. It was the longest distance ever flown by a woman. For this feat, she received several awards, including the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society, presented to her by President Herbert Hoover, and the Distinguished Flying Cross, being the first woman so honored. Her second book, The Fun of It, came out later that year (read an excerpt).
The following years included more record setting flights, lecture tours, celebrity status, and even fashion design. In the fall of 1935, Earhart joined the faculty of Purdue University as an adviser in aeronautics and as consultant in the Department of the Study of Careers for Women. Purdue University Libraries now houses the world's largest collection of Amelia Earhart papers, photos, memorabilia and artifacts. The Library has digitized more than 3,500 scans of photographs, maps, and documents relating to Earhart. These can all be viewed online, including a manuscript draft of a prenuptial agreement by Earhart to George Putnam expressing her "reluctance to marry."
On July 2, 1937 Earhart and her co-pilot Fred Noonan took off from Lae in Papua New Guinea with Howland Island as their intended destination in their celebrated flight around the world, “just for fun”. Their last known position report was about 800 miles into their flight near the Nukumanu Islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was on station at Howland and was assigned to guide Earhart's Lockheed Electra 10E to the island once they neared the area. However, radio and weather difficulties caused the plane to lose radio contact. Earhart's plane never arrived at Howland, and despite a massive search by the U.S. government, no trace of Earhart, Noonan, or their plane has yet been found. Earhart's husband, George Putnam, continued the search at his own expense until October 1937. On January 5, 1939, Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead in Superior Court in Los Angeles.
The whereabouts of Earhart and Noonan remains a mystery, and continues to the subject of much speculation and controversy. Numerous books and movies have been produced with theories as wide ranging as capture by the Japanese as prisoners of war to being marooned on an island and later returning to the US to live in anonymity (see Discussion section of the Amelia Earhart Wikipedia article for sample).
Earhart's memory is kept alive by the controversy, but also by women and men alike who admire her courage and accomplishments. One such group is the Ninety Nines, an organization of women in aviation, of which Earhart was a charter member and first president. The Ninety Nines maintain the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, as well as the International Forest of Friendship. Located at Warnock Lake, the forest is a living memorial to the history of aviation and aerospace. A statue of Amelia Earhart and a tree from her grandfather's farm are located there.
The community of Atchison also keeps alive the memory of Amelia Earhart with an annual community celebration, held this year on July 16-17. The celebration includes an awarding of the Amelia Earhart Pioneering Achievement Award from the Cloud L. Cray Foundation, which provides a $10,000 women’s scholarship to the educational institution of the honoree’s choice. This year's honoree is University of Kansas basketball great, Lynette Woodard.
Other sites of interest:
Amelia Earhart Earthwork at Warnock Lake Park, Atchison, Kansas. Stan Herd created the 1-acre landscape mural in 1997 from permanent plantings and stone to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Earhart's birth.
Kansas State Historical Society tribute
Meet Amelia at the Atchison Library! And other festival events at the Atchison Public Library
See live videos of Earhart at biography.com
See the trailer for the 2009 movie “Amelia,” starring Hillary Swank and Richard Gere at Rotten Tomatoes
A partial bibliography of books and more books
This article was written by Diana Weaver, Director, Atchison Public Library
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