Margaret M. Treadwell
With the seatbelt sign turned off, I approached seats 1A and 1C. “Mr. Owens, would you like a drink after take-off?” I asked with a smile. The gentleman chuckled and ordered a vodka tonic. I turned to 1C. “Mr. Palmer, would you like a drink after take-off?” A loud guffaw punctuated his request for a Coke.
The letter with Pan Am embossed blue logo depicting the world crisscrossed by air routes arrived a few months earlier. I was thrilled to accept the offer to train as a stewardess despite my parents’ trepidations for their only child.
It was a time of adventure and exploration. When I graduated from college and interviewed with Pan American Airways in 1964, it seemed that most of the country was marching on Selma. What better way to evade the sadness of racial tensions in my home state of Alabama than join our premier international airline? I planned to return to my French family in Paris where I’d studied abroad and meet interesting people worldwide.
As it turned out, our eclectic class trained not for my desired return to Paris, but rather to fly “the Orient,” as it was then called. We were sent to our San Francisco base just before the beginning of the Tokyo Olympics, the first Olympics held in Asia — or in any non-white, non-western country.
On my first flight I was scheduled for first class on the Pan Am clipper “Aurora,” headed to Tokyo. The many luxuries of flying first class — white table cloths, fine wines, five course meals we cooked on board — began with stewardesses required to call each passenger by name. So as I checked out the galley, I was also memorizing the seat chart.
Carefully performing my duties, I didn’t realize the two laughing men had switched seats to tease me. When they let me in on the joke that I had mistaken the identities of a white sports announcer, Bud Palmer, and a black 1936 Olympics Champion, Jesse Owens, I learned that celebrities sometimes are a lot less intimidating than I had imagined, and that a self-deprecating sense of humor could take me a long way on any flight.
I knew so little about sports or what the Berlin Olympics had meant. Before Title IX girls were cheerleaders, not athletes, and I was too young to grasp the full import of Jesse Owens’ four Olympic gold medals, which put the lie to Hitler’s Aryan supremacy myth.
Long flights afforded plenty of time to know passengers who wanted to be known, which was certainly the case with Mr. Owens. He had a huge warm smile and could tell a great story like most of my family. His youngest daughter was slightly older than I, and he treated me like a kind uncle as we talked between the courses I was serving him. He told me he was born in Oakville, Alabama, amazingly close to my hometown of Sheffield. While the state had become increasingly polarized and demonized over Civil Rights, I’d tried unsuccessfully to modify my Deep South accent, which I discovered I did not need to do with Jesse Owens. While crossing the Pacific we were crossing barriers unimaginable at home.
At one point, he asked, “What’s your favorite sport?” Since swimming in the Tennessee River was about the only sport available to girls my age, I enthusiastically said, “Swimming!” Mr. Owens replied, “Good news! This is swimming week at the Olympics. Would you like to join me at the Olympic Village to watch tomorrow morning?” I accepted, surprised that my hopes for Pan Am were materializing on this first flight out of the gate.
For two days, my roommate Mary and I found Mr. Owens waiting for us at the Olympic gate prepared to introduce us to swimmers, coaches, and many others of all nationalities who gathered around for his autograph. His inclusive humor, humility and simple presence made me happy to be alive. Some of his tales were tall, but he never boasted. I had to learn from others about the ticker tape parade that was held when he returned a hero to New York City, the disgrace that there was no hotel room available to him in that segregated city, the struggle he had finding work after his fame subsided, the financial troubles he faced, and President Eisenhower’s naming him a “good will” ambassador in 1955.
In Oakville, there is a memorial park with a monument to Jesse Owens. I took our children there to tell this story on one of our many visits back to my family. I am still in awe of this great man and superstar, who honored his roots, became a citizen of the world, and befriended a stewardess from Alabama in October 1964.
Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell is a psychotherapist, columnist and teacher in the Washington, DC area. She is co-editor of “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” by Edwin H. Friedman.