Indiana News

Amelia Earhart - Part-Time Boilermaker

As new search for lost aviatrix begins, we look at her ties to Purdue University

3/22/2012


Footage of Amelia Earhart believed to be arriving in Indianapolis on a train in 1935 (video courtesy of YouTube)

A new search is underway for Amelia Earhart, the aviatrix who was once the most famous woman in the world. For the last two years of her extraordinary life, Indiana was also her part-time home and was instrumental in her final and fatal flight.

Listen:

"We had one of the first aeronautical engineering programs in the country and the world dating to the 1920's," says John Norberg, who has written eight books about Purdue University, including 'Wings Of Our Dreams: Purdue In Flight.' "We've been involved in flight, our alumni, from the Wright Brothers."

That is one reason Purdue's president, Edward Elliot, was interested in Amelia Earhart, who had already made several record flights by the time she and Elliot met. "In 1934, Elliot met her in New York, heard her talk, and thought she would be inspirational to our students. So, he invited her here in the fall of 1934 to speak." Soon after the speech came a job offer. "First, he wanted her to be an advisor to our aeronautical engineering program," Norberg said. "Secondly, he wanted her to be an advisor to women students on careers. In 1935, that is very unusual."

Earhart cast a wide shadow on the West Lafayette campus. After all, it isn't every day that an icon takes up residence in your town. "She stood for courage. She stood for women that could make a difference, that could do things many people thought only men could do," said Mark Roesler, chairman of Indianapolis-based CMG Group, which has represented Earhart's estate for almost 30 years.

She sometimes lived in the residence hall at Purdue, she ate in the cafeteria, and Earhart also almost single-handedly changed Purdue's dress code. "Amelia Earhart wore slacks. Women who came to Purdue in 1935 were definitely not allowed to wear slacks on campus," Norberg said. "The women students went to the dean of the residence halls, Helen Schlemen and said 'if Amelia Earhart can wear slacks on campus, why can't we?' Schlemen leaned forward and told them 'when you can fly an airplane solo across the Atlantic Ocean, you may wear slacks on the Purdue University campus."

Purdue also helped raise money for what Earhart hoped would be her last great adventure - the flight around the world at the equator that would be her last. "$80,000 was contributed to the Purdue Research Foundation," Norberg said. "(It was donated by) David Ross, who was chairman of our board back then. J.K. Lilly from Indianapolis also contributed." Earhart and her team also worked on her last plane at Purdue's airport prior to her flight attempt, and the Purdue Research Foundation had planned to publish a book on the flight had it been completed.

Now, as The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery nears what it believes could be Earhart's final resting place, the family of Earhart's late sister Muriel, which controls the Earhart estate, is eager to see if the last chapter of Amelia's life can be completed 75 years later. "They've been following all these developments very closely," said Roesler. "We'd like to have as many answers as we can on what ultimately happened to probably the greatest mystery of the 20th century

Roesler says he doesn't expect interest in Earhart's life to wane even if we find out exactly what happened to her. "There'll be some more intrique as to why it happened and exactly where it happened, and a lot of answers will be known. It will probably just increase the awareness and focus on what her true accomplishments were."

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