Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Amelia Earhart and Purdue University

In his twenty-three years as Purdue University’s president, Dr. Edward Charles Elliott made many changes to the West Lafayette campus, making it one of the country’s leading technical and engineering institutions. As the university’s leader, Elliott operated under what he called “a doctrine of chance.” He noted that “chance meetings, unexpected conversations, all play a more important part of an individual’s life than do most planned and carefully executed experiences.”

One of the “chance meetings” Elliott described resulted in a major coup for Purdue when, in June 1935, the president announced the appointment of a visiting faculty member as a career counselor for the university’s female students. The new addition to the staff had already achieved worldwide fame, but would pass into legend following her stint at the Hoosier school. Purdue had landed Amelia Earhart.

Although Earhart spent only a short time at Purdue, both she and the university benefited from the relationship. Along with the mountains of publicity garnered from her presence on the faculty, Purdue also became the beneficiary of Earhart’s person-to-person talents as she encouraged female students to embark on careers normally reserved for men.

In Earhart’s case, her husband, George P. Putnam, convinced Elliott and the university to help fund a “flying laboratory” for his wife’s use. Through the Purdue University Research Foundation, and donations from Hoosier businessmen David Ross, J. K. Lilly Sr., and others, the university established in April 1936 an Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research that aided the aviatrix in purchasing the twin-motored Lockheed Electra airplane Earhart used on her ill-fated “Round-the-World” flight, from which she vanishedin July 1937.

Because of her busy scheduled, Earhart could not be a full-time faculty member at Purdue, but attempted to spend at least a month at the university during the school year as a career consultant for women. For her efforts she received from Purdue a $2,000 salary. Along with guiding women students toward new careers she also served as a technical adviser in aeronautics to Purdue, which was, at that time, the only university in the country equipped with its own airport.

To Earhart, however, the “problems and opportunities of these girls [at Purdue] were quite as much my concern as aviation matters” when she agreed to take the job. Writing about her time at the university in her posthumously published book Last Flight, Earhart admitted that she had “something of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to modern feminine education.” She noted that women, especially those whose tastes are outside the normal routine, often did not get a fair chance to develop their talents. “I have known girls who should be tinkering with mechanical things instead of making dresses, and boys who would do better at cooking than engineering.” Purdue offered her a chance to test those beliefs.

Earhart arrived on campus to assume her duties on November 6, 1935. The Lafayette Journal and Courier heralded the famous flier’s arrival in Indiana with a page-one headlines declaring “Amelia Earhart Leaves Air to Guide Purdue Girls in Careers.” With Earhart scheduled to be at the university only three weeks, the newspaper noted that she would “have little opportunity for leisure during her sojourn on the campus.

The reporter’s prediction quickly came to pass. In her first few days at Purdue, Earhart attended a luncheon for the home economics department, served as guest of honor at a Mortar Board luncheon, met the student body at an afternoon tea in the Memorial Union building, and spoke at a special convocation at the Memorial gymnasium.

Given work space in the dean of women’s office and living in South Hall, Earhart became a familiar sight on campus. Students flocked to the flier’s side, especially at dinnertime, and tried not only to imitate her style of dress (which was casual, to say the least), but her mannerisms as well. “These were the days when table manners were considered somewhat important,” noted Helen Schleman, in charge of the dormitory where Earhart stayed. “Amelia’s posture at table, when she was deep in conversation, was apt to be sitting forward on the edge of her chair—both elbows on the table—and chin cupped in hands. Naturally, the question was ‘If Miss Earhart can do it why can’t we?’ The stock reply was ‘As soon as you fly the Atlantic, you may!’”

Earhart managed to fit in well with dormitory life at Purdue. Marian Frazier, who lived in the same dorm as the flier, remembered that it seemed as though Earhart was always “terribly busy,” noting that she heard Earhart working away at her typewriter as late as midnight. Frazier also recalled studying one night when Earhart suddenly appeared and asked to borrow a pen for a short time. The excited Frazier could not keep the news to herself so, when her celebrity neighbor returned the borrowed pen, she was greeted by a roomful of coeds, all wanting to catch a glimpse of the celebrated pilot.

To fulfill her job as a career counselor for Purdue’s female students, Earhart prepared a questionnaire seeking answers from them about such issues as why they were in college, if they wanted a career, how marriage might affect their choices, and what part a husband might play in their life. Of those responding to the questionnaire, Earhart found that approximately 92 percent indicated that they wanted a career. According to Putnam, his wife wanted to find out about the student’s after-college plans to help university officials in reconstructing courses so that they might be more beneficial.

Toward that end, Earhart discussed with Purdue administrators the possibility of creating a “household engineering” course for those women who wanted to remain homemakers. “Many a stay-at-home girl,” said Earhart, “would welcome practical training in what to do when the doorbell fails to function, the plumbing clogs . . . and the thousand-and-one other mechanical indispositions that can occur about the house, often easily enough fixed if one has rudimentary knowledge how to fix them.” She also pointed out the need for male students to gather some experience in homemaking, noting that most men “enter into marriage with little training in domestic economy, know little about food and how it should be prepared, little about child training and their duties as parents. What, I wonder, is going to be done about all that.”

Although she only spent a short time at the university, Earhart’s ties to Purdue played a key role in securing for her the money and equipment necessary for attempting what became her final flight. Thanks to donations to the Earhart Fund established by the university, and contributions in equipment from such companies as Western Electric, Goodyear, and Goodrich, Earhart purchased a twin-motored, ten-passenger Lockheed Electra aircraft. The plane, built in Burbank, California, included such special features as extra gasoline tanks for extended flight, an automatic pilot, and a two-way radio.

On June 1, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Miami, Florida, in the Electra on the first leg of a planned around-the-world flight. The trip proceeded smoothly until the difficult 2,570-mile flight from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island. The two never reached their destination. Despite a massive search, no trace could be found of the plane and its crew. Two weeks after Earhart disappeared, Elliott telegraphed Putnam the following message: “George, she would not want us to grieve or weep; she would have been a heroine in any age.”

Although Purdue’s investment had crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, the university received tangible benefits from its association with Earhart, including nationwide publicity. Also, Purdue’s female students had a unique opportunity to interact with a person who typified women’s changing role in modern society.

As for Earhart, her time at the Hoosier university offered her a chance to test both her skills as a pilot and educator. Looking back at that short period in his wife’s career, Putnam said that Earhart’s job at Purdue provided her with “one of the most satisfying adventures of her life.”



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