When Amelia Earhart lectured at the Shrine Auditorium in Fort Wayne on March 20, 1935, she took listeners with her “through the black fastness of the night” 8,000 feet above sea level, according to a News-Sentinel report the next day.
But the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and first person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, Calif., made the strongest impression on Fort Wayne citizens with her intelligence, progressive ideas and simple tastes.
“Her person is far more interesting than her records,” said historian and pilot Bill Decker, 45, of Fort Wayne.
Decker joined a 1989 search for the aviatrix and her plane, hacking through the South Pacific island of Nikumaroro with a machete alongside members of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
On Tuesday, TIGHAR launched the tenth search in 23 years for Earhart and her plane near the Nikumaroro coast — 75 years after her mysterious disappearance July 2, 1937, while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the world, and 77 years after her most notable visit to Fort Wayne in 1935 as a guest lecturer for the Psi Iota Xi Sorority Pi Chapter.
After distinguishing herself as a pilot and the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air in 1928 (flying in, but not piloting the Friendship plane), Earhart reportedly flew into Fort Wayne's Paul Baer Municipal Airport — since renamed Smith Field — in October1929, and September 1931. We weren't able to confirm those reports.
But when Earhart came to lecture March 20, 1935, Fort Wayne reporters interviewed her at the Keenan Hotel at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Harrison Street.
In a three-piece brown suit, a brown-and-white polka dot blouse and matching strap slippers, Earhart admitted to reading every book her husband George Palmer Putnam wrote and gushed about plans for a romantic Northern expedition, according to the News-Sentinel.
However, she wouldn't let anyone address her as Mrs. Putnam.
“I don't believe even my husband ever introduced me as Mrs. Putnam,” Earhart told The News-Sentinel.
And he probably didn't. A document at the George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers at Purdue University proves Earhart made Putnam sign a prenuptial agreement stating that, if she wasn't happy after the first year of marriage, she would leave him.
“She was far more progressive than she gets credit for,” Decker said.
He calls Earhart a marketing expert who used her likeability to push progressive agendas like gender equity.
Throughout her Fort Wayne interview and lecture, Earhart spoke up for women's rights, exercising the modern woman's prerogative to try any line of work regardless of gender stereotypes.
“In those times, women in aviation were unheard of,” Decker said. “Amelia was able to find and make opportunities for herself.”
Yet Earhart lived by the humbling conviction that “a woman before the bar of public opinion is guilty of inefficiency and incompetency until she proves herself innocent,” she told The Journal Gazette.
“My flights haven't meant anything toward the scientific advancement of aviation, but they proved that a woman can fly,” Earhart said.
The same brazen independence that helped her succeed charmed Fort Wayne citizens, who noted that she answered her own telephone, made her own appointments, and truly “likes people,” according to a March 21, 1935, Journal Gazette article.
Other invited guests at her Shrine Auditorium lecture included Fort Wayne Mayor Harry W. Baals, Board of Aviation Commissioners President J. Ross McCulloch and Fort Wayne Anti-Tuberculosis League President Dr. Maurice Lohman.
But when reporters asked whether she would attend a downtown nightclub dinner party, Earhart said she would rather go out for hot dogs and soda, according to The News-Sentinel.
The Journal Gazette noted her “disarming simplicity” with which she “made friends with her audience” who thanked her with a “heartening ovation.”
Later in 1935, Earhart became the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City, and she became a Purdue University career counselor and adviser to the Department of Aeronautics, according to the George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers.
In April 1936, the Purdue Research Foundation created the Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research to purchase the $80,000 Lockheed Electra known as Earhart's flying laboratory for her unprecedented circumnavigation of the globe in 1937.
But during the third-to-last leg of her trip, from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island on July 2, 1937, she disappeared with her navigator Fred Noonan and the Electra.
TIGHAR researchers believe signals from her plane were received by Pan American Airways after her disappearance near Nikumaroro, prompting interest in the small landmass formerly known as Gardner Island.
According to Decker and TIGHAR, mounting evidence — what is believed to be an aluminum panel from the plane's cabin, remains of 1930s western women's clothing and even rumors of skeletons wearing western clothing — suggest Earhart and Noonan crash-landed on Nikumaroro, where they survived for days before dying of hunger, thirst or injury.
If TIGHAR finds compelling evidence, Decker hopes it will spark renewed interest in the pioneer aviatrix as well as the woman she revealed to 1935 Fort Wayne residents.
He hopes the Electra — if it is found — will be retrieved and donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
“That one artifact would be enough to tell more people about the rest of her story,” Decker said. “She was a force of nature.”