I was unprepared for the response I got to my January column about Frankie Housley, the Fountain City-raised Central High grad and former UT student who, as a young flight attendant, died saving several people in the crash of a National Air Lines DC-4 on an icy runway in Philadelphia in January, 1951. She raced a rapidly spreading gasoline fire that was consuming the passenger compartment, and she escorted several passengers through the smoke and out of the plane, shoving them when she had to. In the end, she wasn’t able to save herself, or the four-month-old baby later found in her arms.
Her heroic story got national attention then, from comedian Eddie Cantor, who dedicated a show to her memory, to Pulitzer-winning author Mackinlay Kantor, who wrote a magazine feature about her. At the time, UT’s president promised to establish a memorial to Housley on campus, a plaque or something, preferably at Ayres Hall, where Frankie had some classes. It never got done, or, if it did, it’s been forgotten and swept away, as seems to be the case with most well-intended proposals. One reader suggested that if she’d also been a defensive tackle for Major Neyland’s Vols, she’d have a statue on Volunteer Boulevard and maybe an annual holiday.
This one column in Metro Pulse got out on the Web, partly via Instapundit, and over the last several weeks I’ve gotten e-mails from Canada, Arizona, Japan, from people who’d never heard about the incident, but found some inspiration in Frankie’s example. I also heard from Mark Laskow, president of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, who told me about a memorial medal established in Frankie Housley’s name. The Carnegie Hero Fund recognizes conspicuous civilian courage. There’s a brief account of Frankie Housley’s feat on their website, carnegiehero.org. In the account her hometown is listed as Jacksonville, where she had lived only recently. On that website, though, are eight other Knoxvillians who, in separate incidents from a drowning rescue in 1941 to a house-fire escape in 2000, risked their lives, and sometimes gave them, to save others.
But the best note I got was from not so far away, in Virginia Beach, Va., from a woman named Jennifer Seal. She’s a 35-year-old doctoral student. She’s the daughter of the two-year-old baby Frankie Housley saved.
The first thing she wrote was “I have Frankie Housley to thank for everything.”
Her grandmother, Manuela Smith, and her great-aunt Carmen, who were both originally from Puerto Rico, were on the flight with a couple of Manuela’s daughters. Manuela had fallen in love with a Navy man, a Gringo named Billy Dean Smith, and when she left Puerto Rico to marry him, her wealthy family disowned her.
The settled in Norfolk, where the large Navy base is, and eventually had seven children.
One of Manuela’s daughters, Brenda, was the baby who died in the crash. Brenda’s older sister, Jennifer’s mother Betty Jane Smith, who was just two years old at the time of the crash, survived, but at 59 remembers nothing about that day. Her parents spoke little of it; it was, they said, too painful to remember. Even when things could have been worse, the loss of a child is still the most difficult thing human beings ever have to contend with.
Mother Manuela died in 1985; the marriage for which she had abandoned her family had lasted, and her husband Billy Dean, heartbroken, died a few months later. “He let himself go, because he wanted to be with her,” Jennifer says.
In the years since, the details of that day have gotten foggy, as stories almost always do. “We always knew about the crash,” Jennifer says, “but we didn’t even know where it occurred or where the baby was buried. These holes led to many theories in my family, even one that the stewardess stole the baby.”
“We never even heard of Frankie Housley,” she admits.
The baby lost in the plane crash, the aunt Jennifer never knew, has become something of a legend in the close-knit family. When the parents chose to name a later child for the baby Brenda Joyce, they had second thoughts, and named the baby Brenda Jean Smith.
Brenda Jean Smith wrote, too. “My middle name was changed to Jean as my father thought it would be too painful to name me exactly after Brenda Joyce,” she says.
The family is trying to track down Brenda Joyce Smith’s gravesite, and so far has few clues about it; they assume it’s in the Philadelphia area.
You can’t always count the consequences of a heroic deed, but this case allows for some math.
Manuela Smith eventually had six children in all, seven counting the baby who died, and they’re a remarkable group who might not be here if not for the efforts of a rookie stewardess from Knoxville. Several are successful in business; one sister runs a cleaning business, two others have managerial posts at Farm Fresh Grocery. Brenda, a musician herself, is a manager for the retail chain Guitar Center. A brother, retired from the air-conditioning business, is a pilot.
Jennifer’s mother Betty, the family’s only surviving member who was in that airplane crash in ‘51, is a director for Northrop Grumman, the major manufacturer of military ships and airplanes.
Jennifer herself is currently working for a real-estate title company and working on her Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from distance-learning institution Capella University in Minneapolis. Her ambition is to be a freelance contractor helping organizations work together better. She and her relatives hope to find out more to fill in a missing chapter in the history of a close family.
In all, there are, alive today, six children, eight grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren in the Chesapeake Bay area who wouldn’t be here today if not for the young stewardess who died trying to save one more.