Edith Lauterbach, pioneering flight attendant, dead at 91

Edith Lauterbach when she was a flight attendant in the 1940s

Edith Lauterbach when she was a flight attendant in the 1940s

By Murray Schneider

Edith Lauterbach who, along with four other United Airlines flight attendants, pioneered the first union in 1945 that fought for fair labor practices and higher salaries in the airline industry died on February 4.

Ede, as she was known, was 91.

Her passing was announced by the union she trail blazed, the Washington D.C. based Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which said in a statement: “The evolution of the flight attendant profession and the legacy of Edith Lauterbach go hand in hand. Her fearlessness and devotion to advancing rights at work paved the way for thousands of flight attendants.”

John H. Hill, Assistant Director, Aviation at the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum at the San Francisco International Airport, echoed this sentiment:

“Edith Lauterbach was a central figure in the development of the flight attendant profession and its labor history.”

Ede Lauterbach moved to Glen Park in 1975 and it is only of little coincidence she domiciled herself on Arbor Street since Ede was an inveterate gardener, often seen on her United layovers placing California native plants along the edges of her Diamond Street corner home.

Horticultural endeavors were no stranger to Ede, who was born on October 1, 1921 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, Ede recalled with a smile in August 2012 while sitting in her Arbor Street living room. “The best thing about growing up on a farm was you never had to pay for your fruits and vegetables.”

Before graduating Oxnard High School in 1937, Ede’s spent her youth in the Southern California outdoors, and what she remembered most has as much to do with the American pastime as it does with farm chores and a neighbor’s horse she rode on storybook girlhood afternoons awash in sunshine.

“We grew up playing baseball in the pastures,” she recollected. “The boys took turns at bat and we’d catch the fly balls.”

A lifetime San Francisco Giants fan, a legacy from shagging childhood Texas Leaguers, Ede was delighted in 2012 to see her Giants garner a second World Championship in three years.

Ede took her place in United aircraft aisles flying unpressurized DC-3 aircraft over the Rocky Mountains 12,000 feet above sea level three years after she’d graduated the University of California, Berkeley only to learn that the male-dominated airline industry expectations were that stewardesses remain unmarried and adhere to strict weight, height and appearance requirements.

Title IX was still years in the making, as was the redress of the archaic working conditions of the nascent airline industry, which labeled Ede and her close United Airlines flight mate Anne Dalton McDowell and other flight attendants “sky girls” and “coeds.”

Seasoned by her farm upbringing, informed by her Cal bachelor’s degree in Political Science, Ede wasn’t about to take such matters lying down. Pent up demand for higher salaries, caused by the World War II wage ceilings, percolated through the booming American economy, and Ede and her four union sisters weren’t to be denied.

“These five women were all very special,” said retired United flight attendant Georgia Nielsen, who met Ede in 1976 and who valued Ede’s guidance from then on. “Pilots were receiving increases in their salaries, and Ede felt it only just that flight attendants did, too.”

Ede remained an activist for workingmen and women her entire life.

Marcy Ballard, Ede’s Arbor Street neighbor for 37 years, and herself a former president of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 1481, recalls well Ede’s blue- collar persuasions.

“We’d whisper to each other ‘Solidarity Forever’ every time someone would make an anti-labor remark,” said Ballard, a retired 18-year veteran of Daly City’s Jefferson High School.

Georgia Nielsen, who served as president Local AFA-CWA, Council 11 concurs.

“Ede will be remembered as a friend of all working people, both men and women,” Nielsen said. “Ede enriched our lives, giving us all access to the good life.”

With all of this, Ede still found time to be a good neighbor, even piloting the first Glen Park neighborhood watch.

“When my husband Jim was ill for seven years with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Ede would go to the farmer’s market and bring fruit and other thoughtful gifts to the nurses taking care of him,” neighbor Marcy Ballard said. “With Ede gone, Glen Park will never be the same.”

Practitioners of leaving the dance with the neighbor who brought them, Ede’s village neighbors weren’t reticent about reciprocating her kindness, commonly ringing her doorbell, inquiring about her welfare and running errands while she was frail toward the end of her life.

“Ede was so happy in Glen Park and good neighborhoods are so hard to find,” said Lisa Lauterbach, Ede’s Southern California niece. “Ede was surrounded by fantastic women the likes of Sue Fitzgerald, Patty Phillopsian and Marcy Ballard, all of whom were wonderful and made Ede’s life so much more comfortable.”

And an eventful life it was, which spanned a 40-year career keeping the flying public safe 30,000 feet above the ground in airline jets.

In recognition of Ede’s four decade contribution to air travel, the Board of Directors of the Association of Flight Attendance-CWA in Chicago on February 12, 2013 resolved that every October 1, Ede’s birthday, be declared “Union Founders Day,” and that “each year on that date we pause to remember our founding mothers and reflect on their contribution to our profession.”

Closer to home, SFO Museum assistant director John H. Hill was not to be outdone, recalling that in the 1950s Ede served as an instructor and a participant in the pioneering airline safety tests conducted at Cornell University, and even as late as 2004 presented a lecture entitled “Creating and Sustaining the Flight Attendants Union” at a symposium held at the San Francisco International Airport.

“Ede continued to make a difference in the well being of her colleagues and the safety of her passengers,” said Hill. “We feel privileged to help sustain the legacy of Ede’s extraordinary career for the public benefit, and we will always be grateful for her generosity and the warmth of her personality.”

From her San Jose home, Georgia Nielsen said: “Ede had a wonderful approach to both women and men. She had a soft touch with both colleagues and passengers.”

Patrick McDowell, an Austin, Texas resident and the son of a United Airline pilot and flight attendant Anne Dalton McDowell, remembers Ede well, speaking for all those who had the good fortune to know her, as he did throughout his Bay Area childhood. When he learned of Ede’s death he said in  an email to Nielsen “Although we always expected she would be around forever, I’m sure she going to be in the hearts and memories of flight attendants for years to come.”

“Ede is now with her best friend, my mother, and her other stewardess friends,” he continued, mindful that his parents knew Ede for nearly 60 years. “They now have their real wings and are probably forming a union in Heaven on their terms right now.”

More on Ede here.

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