John Tolley, February 3, 2018
When Amelia Earhart vanished from the skies over the South Pacific, she largely became her disappearance. Decades have passed, yet her name still evokes speculation as to what may have happened to the famed aviatrix and her navigator Fred Noonan. Did they simply run out of fuel and plummet into the ocean? Did they touch down on some tropical atoll? Were they captured by foreign agents?
We'll never know for certain the fate of Earhart and Noonan. What is known is the unparalleled impact she had on a generation of Americans, who saw in her a fearless and determined counterpoint to the despondency of the Great Depression. Young women, in particular, were taken with Earhart's iconoclastic manner which flew in the face of mores of the time.
Nowhere today is that spirit and zeal for adventure more better documented than at the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections, which houses over 5,500 items from Earhart's personal papers.
"Amelia Earhart was a rock star in the thirties," says Tracy Grimm, the Barron Hilton Archivist for Flight and Space Exploration at the Purdue Archives. "She went against society's rules, and she didn't do it in a real blatant way. She did it in a very subtle and smart way, challenging women's roles in society."
From her correspondence with such notable figures as First lady Eleanor Roosevelt to her prenuptial agreement with husband and manager George Palmer Putnam, the items in the collection paint a portrait of Earhart few today remember.
"When you look through the collection and see the breadth of her papers you start to see the complexity of the individual," Grimm notes. "Behind every legend there is a human being."
Earhart's connection to Purdue began in 1935. Nominally a visiting faculty member, she served as a technical adviser to the university's Department of Aeronautics in addition to being a guidance counselor of sorts to women concerning their careers.
"President [Edward C.] Elliot had heard her speak in New York City and she spoke about how a woman could have a career just like a man," says Grimm. "He wanted to bring her to Purdue because, in the thirties, we had quite a large population of women students. She was invited to live here and work with them, to be a role model and to encourage them to have careers of their own."
It was during her time at Purdue that Earhart began planning her ill-fated trip around the world, with the university even providing the funds to purchase the Lockheed Model 10 Electra she would pilot.
When it became clear that Earhart was never going to be found, Putnam made the decision to donate her personal papers to Purdue, owing not only to their commitment to aviation education, but also to the vast opportunities that the university offered to women.
The continuing mission of the Purdue Archives is one of preservation and education, Grimm explains. One of the most gratifying elements of being a steward of such a collection is watching as children discover Earhart's incredible tale of courage, tenacity and perseverance.
"Her legacy at Purdue is really important because it inspire students. Kindergarteners all the way up to twelfth want to come to Purdue and be like Amelia, to fly planes or maybe just do something that is out of the ordinary."