The Bravest Woman in America

Anybody remember Frankie Housley?

At 2:13 on a Sunday afternoon in January, 1951, a National Air Lines DC-4 with 25 passengers aboard landed on an icy runway in Philadelphia. In the thick of the Korean War, several of the passengers were soldiers and sailors. Flight 83 was just a short one from Newark to Norfolk, with this brief stop in Philadelphia in between.

Despite the weather, the landing went as planned, at first. But as the four-engine propellor-driven plane taxied down the tarmac, it skidded off the icy pavement, through a cyclone fence, and into a ditch. The left wing broke, and the plane burst into a gasoline fire.

As the cabin filled with smoke, passengers screamed. Some were on fire themselves.

Frankie Housley was the lone stewardess. She was a striking young woman with dark-brown hair and darker eyes, so dark that some described them as black. The 24-year-old had been a stewardess for only five months, but she took charge of the situation. "Take it easy," she commanded soldiers.

Though she'd recently lived in Jacksonville, near her brother, she'd grown up in Knoxville, in North Hills and pre-incorporation Fountain City, the daughter of a cigar-company owner. A Central High grad, she had attended the University of Tennesee for a year and joined a sorority. But then, perhaps too early, she got married. As some of her old friends were graduating from college, she was getting a divorce. She kept her maiden name, unusual for a divorcee in mid-20th century America, and worked for a time as a stenographer for a Jacksonville dentist before applying with the airline; she was hired on the first interview.

She opened the emergency door and looked down at an eight-foot drop to the ground. One after another, she escorted passengers to the opening. To those who resisted the jump, which was like leaping off a garage roof, she offered a firm shove.

She got 10 passengers out that way. Among them were soldiers, sailors, and young mother Manuela Smith and her two-year-old daughter. But Smith's infant, Brenda Joyce, was still in the plane. Frankie went back in, one more time, but this time she didn't emerge.

When the fire was out, they found Frankie in the scorched fuselage with the baby in her arms.

A soldier she saved called her "a real heroine." One congressman swore she was one of the bravest Americans in history.

Her body arrived back in her home town by train. The public wasn't invited to her funeral at Rose's, but more than 200, described as "close friends," appeared for the service. She was buried on a hill at Lynnhurst in Fountain City.

The story made national headlines that week, an item in Time magazine. The Philadelphia Bulletin editorialized that she should be honored with a permanent, conspicuous memorial, and collected money for such a project, suggesting that, for maximum exposure, the best place for such a memorial should be in her hometown, at the university where she'd been a student. UT's President C.E. Brehm immediately agreed. Although she wasn't a graduate, UT would install a prominent memorial to the former student, and Brehm decided Ayres Hall would be the best place. Word got back to the Philadelphia Bulletin, which reported, that UT "will accept any contributions that may be forwarded through this newspaper and will undertake the erection of a memorial in Ayres Hall, where Miss Housley pursued her studies."

Her story captured the national imagination. NAL installed a plaque in her honor in a Miami hospital. Show-biz legend Eddie Cantor, the Apostle of Pep, performed a benefit comedy show in Jacksonville to raise money for a new wing of the Hope Haven Hospital for Crippled Children there to be named in Frankie's honor. It seemed appropriate, he said, because she died trying to save a child.

Some of it bothered her mother, only because the national media kept referring to Frankie as a Jacksonville resident. "This is her home, not Jacksonville," she said. The local chapter of the Shriners, who funded Knoxville's own Crippled Children's Hospital, on Laurel Avenue, dedicated a room in the hospital to Frankie Housley.

Mr. Housley, represented as "a salesman" in newspaper accounts, mourned quietly. John Housley was, by some accounts, an operator; he'd come up in the ‘20s, when a lot of Knoxville business had a shady side. Besides selling cigars, he was also a bootlegger, and according to family members, involved in gambling and prostitution as well. He'd run the Housley-Mayer Cigar Co. out of the back of a building on Gay near the train station, and later set up in a bigger storefront on North Central near Broadway.

Fifteen years after the crash, writer MacKinlay Kantor, no kin to Eddie, but author of the Pulitzer-winning historical novel, Andersonville, took an interest in her story—he called her "the Bravest Woman In America"—and came to Knoxville to have a look around the city where she grew up, as if to find clues to her heroism. He visited each of her childhood homes, and her grave, and observed that each was on a hill. Readers Digest, then the most popular magazine in the nation, published "A Girl Named Frankie" in 1966. Some readers traveled to Knoxville just to see her grave.

We have processes and advocacy groups for memorializing soldiers, even those who never showed conspicuous courage, but not for flight attendants. Some Knoxvillians today, like Jack Kramer, who called me about her story, think she deserves a statue, or a street named in her honor.

Kramer grew up in Florida, and eventually joined the Navy. After seven years of service, much of it in the vicinity of the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, he returned to an America he didn't recognize: divorce, crime, and drugs, he says, had eroded life as he knew it. Looking for something more meaningful, he moved to Spain, where he found values that resembled those of the America of his youth. He settled there, and taught some.

An amateur bibliophile, he often found himself browsing used-book sales. At a flea market he found a children's book in Spanish, called ¿Que Quieres Ser?—What do you want to be? It told inspiring stories from around the world about people in different professions: Henry Ford, Pablo Picasso, Florence Nightingale, and Frankie Housley. "I was moved by her story," he says.

After four years in Spain, he realized, "You just can't step back out of life. You've got to get involved." He moved back to the states, got his masters in Spanish, and began working with the Catholic church.

Through a couple of twists of fate, Kramer found himself editing the Hispanic edition of the Catholic church's newsletter for the diocese of Knoxville, Tenn. He now suffers from Parkinson's, and has some difficulty speaking, but still works as a consultant for the church's Hispanic ministries.

Central High honors Housley in its Alumni Hall of Fame—they display the portrait of her used by Reader's Digest—but Kramer thinks there should be something more, out where anybody might encounter the story. He'd heard the Knoxville Fire Department might be interested in helping, and mailed them his copy of the book; unfortunately, the fellow he mailed it to lost his job soon after that, and Kramer never saw the book again.

The room named for America's heroine at Crippled Children's Hospital did not survive that hospital itself, which closed only about a decade after the dedication of the Housley room. I walked around Ayres Hall the other day looking for a plaque, but gather UT never got around to installing it. I don't know what became of the money pledged in Philadelphia.

National Air Lines stopped flying many years ago, acquired by PanAm, which subsequently collapsed. The Philadelphia Bulletin closed. Even the hospital in Jacksonville that Eddie Cantor raised money for has since been torn down. Had Housley survived, she might still be alive; she'd be about 81. I know lots of people older than that. If she had just jumped out, and left her passengers to die, she might well still be among us, maybe better known than a heroine who dies young.


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