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90.3 WCPN
WCLV 104.9
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Katherine Wright Haskell: The First Lady of Flight

Friday, September 1, 2000 at 3:24 PM

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Many women have played important roles in the development of aviation. While schoolchildren might recognize the names of Amelia Earhart and Anne Linbergh, others--like Harriet Quimby and Bessie Cochran --are not so familiar. One woman whose accomplishments have been largely forgotten was arguably the most important of all--Katharine Wright, sister of the Wright brothers. 90.3's Karen Schaefer has this report.

Karen Schaefer- No one will ever forget the Wright brothers’ historic first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. But history seems to have almost forgotten the third member of the team--Katharine Wright Haskell.

Joan Hrubec- I’ve had people come up to this exhibit. It’s got the name onthere. It’s got her brothers all over the place and they’ll say, who was Katharine Wright? And of course then we’ll say, well, the Wright brothers had a sister.

KS- At the Women’s Air and Space Museum in Burke Lakefront Airport, Director Joan Hrubec stands in front a glass case filled with photographs, letters and personal treasures that once belonged to Katharine Wright. Hrubec says in 1989, when the museum opened its exhibition, little was known about her.

JH- We found that Katharine was practically left out, as far as any recognition was made. She stayed pretty much in the background and let the limelight shine on her brothers, but she was always there to guide them.

KS- Katharine’s contribution to her brothers’ legendary success was made not as an inventor, but as a silent partner. Her mother died when she was just fourteen, so Katharine took charge of the household. She entered Oberlin College and graduated in 1898, then taught high school for ten years in Dayton. While Wilbur and Orville were away testing their designs, it was Katharine who handled their correspondence and helped her brother Lorin manage the family bicycle shop. But it was after the flight at Kitty Hawk that Katharine really came into her own.

JH- She was college-educated, knew a lot of languages, so when they started going to Europe and meeting crown princes and kings and queens, it was Katharine who guided them through all that.

KS- In 1909, after nursing Orville back to health following a crash, Katharine joined her brothers in Paris to help promote the new flying machines. She made her first flight that year with Wilbur in Pau, France, her skirts modestly bound to her ankles with a piece of rope. Returning to the U.S with her brothers, she met with President William Howard Taft and was feted in a two-day celebration in Dayton. Newspaper stories from the time declared that Ôthere would have been no Kitty Hawk without Kitty Wright.’

Betty Darst- At the time that this was placed as a memorial, this was to recognize the gifts of Katharine Wright.

KS- But Betty Darst, a Dayton teacher who portrays Katharine Wright, says Katharine was much more than her brothers’ amanuensis. In 1923 she became the third woman to be appointed to the board of trustees of Oberlin College. And in 1926 Katharine married her former math tutor Harry Haskell, later the editor of the Kansas City Star.

BD- But Katharine died suddenly in 1929. And Harry Haskell, a few years later, has this beautiful fountain built in her honor and memory. And here it is in Oberlin, this is a fountain that has fallen into disrepair.

KS- Although Haskell’s tribute to his wife is crumbling, other memorials to Katharine Wright are maintained in Dayton and Cleveland as well as Michigan, Kansas and Missouri. But Darst hopes a donor can be found to restore the Oberlin memorial to a woman once as famous as her aeronautical brothers.

BD- And here we are at Oberlin College with such a legacy and such a connection, with the birthplace of aviation in Dayton, Ohio and the education of Katharine, who supported her brothers, both as their hostess and their communicator and their support system. And people like the Wrights who changed our world.

KS- Remembering the first lady of flight-- Katharine Wright Haskell--for 90.3, I’m Karen Schaefer in Oberlin.

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