Living with Katherine
By Debra Winegarten
I met Katherine Stinson in a round-about sort of way. My mother, Ruthe Winegarten, the dean of Texas women's history, asked me to write Katherine's story. As the research historian for the Texas Women's History Project in 1974, Mom came across Katherine
and thought her story would make a great children's book. She asked many of her writer friends to do the book and they all turned her down, saying they didn't know anything about aviation and didn't want to.
One joke in our family is when Mom asked you to do something, it was couched as an invitation, but in reality, was a commandment. The archives from the Texas Women's History project resided in the Texas Woman's University Library, where I graduated in
May, 1988. I had the whole summer before going to graduate school at The Ohio State University planned. I was going to swim, party, swim, party, and swim and party, in that order.
Mom said as long as I was doing all that, I ought to write a children's book about Katherine. So I did. I wrote five chapters that summer and in August, mailed them off to Mom in Austin, saying, "I'm off to Ohio for grad school, see you, bye."
Ten years later, I moved to Austin, having finished graduate school and ready to look for a job. I lived with Mom for a few months. Mom reached into her file cabinet, pulled out the five chapters and said, "Finish it." I spent the next three months finishing
and polishing the story, then mailed the manuscript to Ed Eakin, Mom's publisher.
I didn't hear a word from Ed for three months and finally called him, asking if he received the manuscript. "I did," he said, in that West Texas drawl of his, "but I lost it." Fortunately, I made a xerox before I sent him the book, made another copy,
hopped in my car and drove over to see him. He sent me a contract for the book a week later. So when people ask me how long it took me to write the book, I say, "Either six months or twelve years, depending on your
Katherine, as you may know, was the fourth woman in the U.S. to earn her pilot's license, in 1912. I initially wrote my book for 5th to 8th grade girls, wanting to give them a non-traditional role model for women. I soon realized that while that was a
lofty goal, girls in that age-group don't buy books for themselves, but receive them as gifts from parents and grandparents. The secondary market I thought would be interested in the book was pilots. My book came out
in early August, 2001, right before the 9/11 event in New York City.
One of the many ramifications of 9/11 was that many, many pilots lost their jobs. Commercial air travel plummeted as people were afraid to fly, and pilots were furloughed by the thousands. The very people who I thought would be keen to buy my book suddenly
were scrambling to pay their rent. I had my work cut out for me.
I learned that Katherine was being inducted into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame and wangled an invitation to come and sell my books before and after the event. Still new to the bookselling world, I shlepped myself and a carton of books to Huntsville,
Alabama, where I attended the induction ceremony. This was my first "real" aviation event and I wasn't sure what to expect. Sales were a bit lukewarm prior to the ceremony, and I was afraid I'd made a terrible mistake.
Then, a small, petite woman came up to me afterwards and said, "Oh, is that a book about Katherine? I want five."
Excited, I started inscribing them, asking in turn who each book was for. The first was for her son, next her daughter, then her father-in-law and another friend. When I got to the last one she said, "Oh, that one's for me." By now, my writing hand was
a bit tired, and I tried not to be too impatient as I asked her name. Looking at me she said, "Katherine Stinson Delano." My heart did one big thump and then stopped.
I looked at her a little closer asking, "Are you related to the Katherine Stinson?" She nodded, "I'm her great-niece," she said, looking back at me with Katherine Stinson's eyes. I jumped up, hugged her, did a little dance and had to be careful not to
let my tears fall on the page as I inscribed her book. She came back with her father-in-law and bought 2 more books before the evening was over. By the time I flew back to Austin, 35 copies of "Katherine Stinson: The
Flying Schoolgirl" lighter, I knew I was onto something.
I figured that perhaps female pilots would be interested in Katherine's story, since she was a role model for them. I "googled" "women pilots Austin" and discovered a women's pilot organization, "The 99's," started by Amelia Earhart and others in 1929.
And, they had a chapter in Austin! The women were delighted to have me come speak at their monthly meeting, where the 6 women in attendance bought 9 books between them. At last – I found my target market! One of the
women casually asked if I had been up in a Stinson? "Not yet," I replied, too embarrassed to admit I had no idea what she was talking about.
When I got home, I googled "Stinson," only to discover that Katherine's younger brother, Eddie, started an aircraft company of his own in 1920. His planes, known as "Stinsons," were the corporate Lear jets of their time, prized by businessmen. He started
his company near Detroit because of the ready supply of machinists and parts suppliers. He used many car parts in his airplanes, such as car window handles and doorknobs on the planes. He made a number of innovations,
such as brakes and enclosed cockpits, so businessmen could arrive at their appointments not covered in grease, oil and bugs as they had when flying in open cockpit machines.
I realized I had a lot more research to do before I put myself in front of more knowledgeable aviation audiences. While preparing myself, I scheduled a bunch of book signings at small, dinky library venues. While speaking to the Kerrville Library Association,
with a total of five people in attendance, including the librarian, afterwards a woman approached me and asked, "Well, you're going to Oshkosh, aren't you?"
Red flags went off in my head and all I could think of was, "Why would I need to buy overalls and kids clothes?" as those were my associations with Oshkosh. I admitted I didn't know a thing about it and was told that the Experimental Aircraft Association,
the largest annual air show in the U.S. took place in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and I really ought to go and be a part of it. By the time I drove the 90 miles back to Austin, waiting in my email box was information from the
woman on how to apply to be a featured speaker at the air show. I was on my way!
Greetings from Australia and Japan
One thing about having a successful book is it takes on a life of its own. Like a child, you can nurture it and love it, but ultimately once you send it out into the world, there's really no telling what mischief it might get into, or joys it could bring
your way. I put up a website and started posting on every aviation site I could find on the internet that was in any way related to Katherine Stinson. Then, one day, I awoke to find an order from Australia.
I emailed the man who ordered the book, telling him the exorbitant amount I was going to charge him for postage. He said that was no problem because he was going to give my book to his dad for his birthday. So I asked his dad's name and wrote a nice inscription,
something about how much he, the son, must adore his dad.
When the son, Arthur, received the book, he emailed me again and asked how on earth I knew what a close relationship he had with his father? To which I said, "Arthur, anyone who spends more on POSTAGE than the price of the book itself, must really love
his dad." And we've been friends ever since. I admitted I knew nothing about Australia, so every year, Arthur started sending me a gorgeous pictorial calendar from Australia, which we used as our "family" calendar,
in the hallway by the telephone.
So the next year, I scheduled myself for a weekend trip to Tyler, Texas to speak at an aviation museum in East Texas. My partner said, "You can't go that weekend, it's Memorial Day weekend!"
"No, it isn't," I said, "I checked the calendar and it's not listed on that weekend."
To which my heart partner replied, "Honey, that's an AUSTRALIAN calendar." So now, I check a U.S. calendar too, before scheduling my events, just in case.
Fast forward to 2009, when I got a sweet email out of the blue from a woman in Japan, asking if she could possibly ask me a few questions about Katherine Stinson. I said sure and we struck out an email conversation. Several months passed, and the woman
wrote again saying she would be visiting the U.S. in a couple of months and wanted to know if she could come to Texas to see me for a day to find out more about Katherine Stinson.
It turned out that she was accompanying her elderly parents to their last trip to Boston, and she was coming as both interpreter and helper. She asked if there was a hotel near my house where she could stay. I told her anyone coming all the way from Japan
to Boston and then to see me should plan on staying more than a day, but that was all the time her schedule permitted. Then I insisted that she stay with us to maximize our time together. Next, I wrote and asked if
she was allergic to cats, because we are owned by three of them.
When she replied that she wasn't allergic to "lovely, fluffy, selfish creature," (sic), I knew I had found a kindred spirit, indeed. And Yuriko came and it was a total meeting-of-the-minds and hearts. The next year, she returned and I arranged for us
to go together to Katherine's archives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as well as the compound of houses she built in Santa Fe. We laughed and played the whole time, when we weren't working, which was most of the time.
Now, we refer to each other as "Stinson sister," and email often.
I am now working on another book about Katherine – since writing my first book, I've gathered a lot more information about her and still have many more of her stories I want to tell. And, as you can tell, we continue to have adventures together.