ST. PETE BEACH — They ranged in age from 30 to 97. Some had brief careers, others flew for years, in the days when they were called stewardesses, not flight attendants.
Jeanne L. Key, 97, flew for American Airlines in 1938. She said she was one of the first stewardesses hired and was featured in ads for the company. Key flew less than a year because she married a pilot. He said he didn't want his wife to work, so he bought her a farm to run. When they sold their 500-acre farm, the land became the spot for Dulles International Airport in Washington.
They call themselves the Kiwi Club. It's a nonprofit group of 1,600 current and former employees of American Airlines. They gathered over the weekend at the TradeWinds resort to celebrate the group's 60th anniversary.
"We are fun but a charitable organization," said Ginny Day McKillop, national Kiwi president. "We meet every two years, but between times we all communicate."
In 1956 Jane McDonald Jamison became an American Airlines stewardess. That was her first and last year on the job. Jamison married a man who also worked for American. She tried to keep the marriage quiet, so she could continue working, but got caught after just a month. A stewardess could not be a married woman.
"Early one morning, I came out of the apartment I shared with my previous roommates and saw my supervisor," said Jamison. "I made the mistake of speaking to her."
Shortly after, Jamison was called on the carpet and told she could resign or get fired.
On the other hand, Sandy Pagden-Graubado's career lasted 37 years. She began in 1964, was based at Kennedy International Airport. During that time she flew in Electras, DC-6s, 727s, 707s, 990s, DC-10s, Airbuses and many other planes.
"When I was first flying to San Juan, Puerto Rico, a gentleman got on with a large garment bag," she said. "He insisted on placing it in one of the 747's coat closets. I said let me hang this up for you. He said, no, no. But I had reached inside the bag to find the hanger and pulled out hair. It was his mother. He was taking her back to San Juan for burial and couldn't afford the funeral transportation. We closed the closet and let mom stay in there until he got off in San Juan."
During the convention, different Kiwi chapters had items for sale. So too, did the Wings Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting American Airlines flight attendants in need due to illness, injury disability or catastrophic events.
"Each of our 43 chapters makes donations to Wings. We also donate money every time one of our members dies," said McKillop, a registered nurse.
Kiwi adopted the Wings Foundation as its national endeavor in 1996 and has donated approximately $300,000 since then.
When McKillop talks about becoming a stewardess in 1953, she had to smile. "I told my assistant head nurse I'd go along and keep her company. I was hired. She wasn't. I decided maybe I'd better take the job, because after that I'd have a terrible (nursing) schedule."
She flew for two years out of La Guardia on a small, 40-passenger plane and she was the only flight attendant. She later flew military charters for Pan Am and said she got the job because she spoke French. They needed nurses and someone who spoke a foreign language. After a while, she said, they forgot she was a nurse and she flew everywhere. She also met her future husband, a pilot for Pan Am.
"I had to quit once I was married."
Three Kiwi members walked up arm-in-arm to the event's garden cocktail party: Joni Cory, 92, of Ridgecrest Village in Davenport, Iowa, Lorraine Soucy O'Brian, 88, of Miami, and Barbara Woodward Schneider, 88, originally from Ohio. All three flew in the 1940s.
They told tales of being the first group of stewardesses who weren't nurses, of moving from a small town to work in New York, then getting married, leaving American after two years, having children and teaching and of being in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945, at the end of World War II.
"Flight attendants are more than just servers in the air," said Pagden-Graubado from the Fort Myers Suncoast Chapter. "We take care of people's physical and psychological needs during the time they're with us. The Kiwi Club is a lively group who served in the air and now as a charitable organization, we serve our communities on the ground."