By Murray Schneider
If you liked the short-lived series Pan Am, we have a neighbor who lived it – one who fought and won rights stewardesses in that show could only dream of. Edith Lauterbach, who has lived on the corner of Diamond and Arbor Streets since 1975, spent her working life flying in airplanes. She enrolled in United Airlines Stewardess School in 1944 and retired from the Friendly Skies in 1986.
Women flying for a living in those days were called stewardesses, and if they aren’t called that any longer it’s largely because of Lauterbach, whose trailblazing efforts to organize female employees culminated in the birth of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which on August 22, at 60,000 strong, celebrated its 67th anniversary as the world’s largest flight attendants’ union.
During her 42 years in the air Lauterbach remained steadfast, protecting the safety of the flying public while simultaneously safeguarding the rights of working women and men who labored 12,000 feet above the ground. “Before pressurized aircraft,” Lauterbach said, sitting in her living room, her female cat Pip circling her legs, “airplanes would shake pretty badly and we’d learn to go with the flow.”
Today, while flying in pressurized jets above turbulence at 30,000 feet, even a minor bump can cause the airplane captain to switch on seatbelt signs and passengers to reach for their emergency cards and take quick tutorials.
In 1945, Lauterbach was based in Denver for nearly four years and routed over the Rocky Mountains to Salt Lake City, Boise, Pendleton, Walla Walla and Portland. To a young woman who’d only recently earned her BA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley in 1942, it at times seemed like riding a rodeo-bucking bronco. “We learned and practiced how to handle cups of coffee and tea, that’s for sure,” she said.
Flight attendant school taught Lauterbach all the United Airline routes, ticketing, safety procedures and basic first aide, which included how to make and apply a tourniquet and administer oxygen to a stricken passenger until the pilot could make an emergency landing. It was messy, but never scary she offered, flying in those DC-3s, getting buffeted around. “Those planes didn’t have locked bins like the jets do today,” she said. “There were simply hold racks and sometimes briefcases would fall out.”
“While I didn‘t see it, a friend told me a women once boarded a DC-3 with her baby, sat in the front row and stowed the child in the overhead until the flight attendant told her that simply wouldn’t do.”
Lauterbach was born in Oxnard, California and raised on a five-acre farm, overseen by her high school chemistry-teaching father who raised chickens and pigs and her garden-loving mother. “My mother grew flowers and peanuts,” she recalled. “During canning season everyone worked putting up all sorts of fruit.” The best thing about growing up on a farm, she says “was you never had to pay for your fruits and vegetables.”
Before graduating Oxnard High School in 1937, Lauterbach’s youth was spent in the Southern California halcyon outdoors and what she remembers most has as much to do with the great American pastime as it does with her farm chores and a neighbor’s horse she rode on storybook girlhood afternoons awash in sunshine. “We grew up playing baseball on our fields,” she recollected, her shoulders warmed by a San Francisco Giants sweatshirt. “The boys took turns at bat and we’d catch their fly balls.”
A decade after her Denver posting, United Airlines transferred Lauterbach to New York City where her lifetime affection for the storied baseball Giants franchise began. “The radio was always on and in the early ‘50s we’d listen to as many Giants games as we could,” she said. “I was thrilled at Bobby Thomson’s home run.”
“No one would talk to you during the summer if you didn’t know what was going on in the National League,” she added, remembering Russ Hodges’ play-by-play call of Thomson’s 1951 pennant winning Shot Heard ‘Round the World. Her interest in athletics extended far beyond Coogan’s Bluff, once the fabled site of the New York Giants’ Polo Grounds.
“I had a friend, Ken, who was a merchant marine,” she said. “Ken would ship out on banana boats and when he’d dock we’d go to hockey matches and basketball games.”
United eventually transferred her to San Francisco. Leaning back, she rubbed the Giants logo on her sweatshirt, happy that major league baseball had traveled to California with her: “I was excited, but Candlestick was such a windy place I never watched a game there.” She’d endured her share of gale force winds above the Colorado Rockies and could do without them at Candlestick Cove.
What she also could live without was dealing with the inequity and medieval working conditions encountered by her sisters in the post-World War II airline industry. Women were forced to retire at the age of 32, forbidden to marry and of course had to remain childless, as well as adhering to strict weight, height and appearance requirements. “I’m proud I had a role in the foundation of our Flight Attendant union,” said Lauterbach, who continues her activism today as a charter member of the Retiree Association of Flight Attendants – CWA (RAFA). “One of the first thing our initial contract secured was getting rid of the mandatory 32-year old retirement age.”
“We still couldn’t get married until the middle ‘60s,” she added, “but early on we won reasonably decent salaries.” In an era when employee unions are scapegoated and used as piñatas, Lauterbach remains an unapologetic believer in collective bargaining. “We never went on strike,” she said, “but I walked a pilot picket line in support.”
Management and union weren’t always pitted against one another in adversarial roles, she recalls. “In 1952 United sent me to Cornell University, which ran an aviation lab and we performed 13 evacuation exercises,” she said. “Our results went to Congress and today the industry standard remains 90 seconds to exit aircrafts in emergencies.”
In 1984, the AFA showed its appreciation by establishing the Edith Lauterbach Merit Award, the highest honor it can bestow upon flight attendants, whose higher wages, comprehensive health benefits and improved working conditions are a direct result of Lauterbach’s pioneering efforts. Spending relaxing layovers at her home on Arbor Street, Lauterbach was a pioneer in Glen Park, as well, honing her grass roots organizational skills, ensuring the safety of her neighbors as she’d done for her passengers.
“In 1975, I began our first neighborhood watch,” she said. “We checked on one another, had phone trees, signs, even maps.” What comes around goes around. Now friends watch over Lauterbach, including her neighbor Marcy Ballard who lives across the block on Arbor Street. Ballard, a former president of American Federation of Teachers Local 1481 who taught English for 18 years at Jefferson High School in Daly City, accompanies Lauterbach, who no longer drives, to doctor’s appointments.
“Ede was our first friend when we moved here in 1977,” she said. “We made an immediate connection and it’s been solidarity forever.”
“Glen Park was like a small town when I moved here,” said Lauterbach. “There were so many birds and the children would play ball on vacant lots that now have houses on them.”
“A friend and I would meet and hike all through Glen Canyon,” she continued. “We’d carry trash bags and pick up as much litter as we could. It was much more primitive back then.” There’s nothing at all primitive about her well cared for garden, though.
“When I moved in and would tend my plants along Diamond Street,” she said, “people would pass by and say ‘so nice to see somebody doing something so beautiful.’” A long-time advocate of drought tolerant California native plants, Lauterbach’s backyard is replete with plants requiring little water. “Hummingbirds love them,” she said, a tiny river waterfall gurgling only a few feet outdoors.
Lauterbach will soon be domiciled in a third locale. She’s just been nominated for the National Women’s History Museum planned for construction just off the Washington Mall, which is supported by actress Meryl Streep who personally has donated $1 million to the project. When Lauterbach heard of this honor she responded in her characteristically self-effacing manner: “I am very pleased.”
She’s no stranger to seeing her story and her working sisters’ story displayed in museum halls. A five month 2004 exhibit, “Air Hostess: A History of Female Flight Attendants,” in the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum at the San Francisco International Airport highlighted airline attendants struggle to halt smoking on airplanes when it was documented they inhaled the equivalent of packs of cigarettes on flight after flight.
“Ede is incredible, a treasure,” said John Hill, Assistant Director, Aviation at SFO’s museum, when he learned of Lauterbach’s NWHM nomination. “She is the sole surviving member of the five women who forged the first collective bargaining agreement recognized by an American airline.”
“Our union began with motivated activists and continues its mission to advance our profession and our rights at work,” she said about the AFA, which gave women and men a level playing field where impartial governmental umpires favored neither side.
But if truth-be-told, there may even be a bit of self-interest in Lauterbach’s selflessness. She ended her historic career flying from San Francisco to Monterey, a benefit due to her seniority with United Airlines, a policy won over many hours at the bargaining table with management. “The easy route was called the Grandma’s schedule,” Lauterbach smiled. “It was a flight for old ladies!”