Earhart visit to Janesville remembered 80 years later
JANESVILLE--The late Al Hough never forgot the day Amelia Earhart came to town.
The 12-year-old and a buddy sat in the front pew of Janesville's First Congregational Church to listen to the famous aviator.
They leaned forward as Earhart shared a riveting tale of flying over the Atlantic in 1932.
At one point in that flight, she noticed flames coming through a broken weld in her plane's manifold ring. She soared to 12,000 feet, where blinding rain turned to ice and sleet. To survive, she felt her way through the clouds.
Before ending her talk 80 years ago Thursday, Earhart predicted that Al's generation would consider airplanes as routine as telephones. Young Al and his friend held up their model airplanes and asked if the brave adventurer would sign them.
Earhart's aide collected the wings from the planes and promised that Earhart would sign and mail them back.
To Al's surprise, she did.
When Al died in 2008, he left his treasured autograph on a balsa airplane wing to his wife, Lois, of Janesville. The wing is glued inside the cover of Earhart's autobiography, “The Fun of It.”
Today, the memento is a reminder of another time, when aviation was in its infancy.
“It is very rewarding to have the 6-inch wing,” Lois said. “It is thrilling to see Amelia Earhart's name.”
Earhart was one of many famous people invited to the city by the now defunct Janesville Women's History Club.
In the days before television and other mass media, the club used the church sanctuary, which offered ample room and good acoustics, during the week to host world-renowned people.
In addition to Earhart, reformer Jane Addams, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Olympic gold-medal winner Jesse Owens brought their amazing stores to packed houses.
The club dates to 1876, when six women got together for study and mutual improvement in Janesville and began an afternoon lecture series. Twenty years later, the group became known as the Women's History Club.
In the 1950s, research by reference librarians at the Hedberg Public Library shows, the group became known as the Janesville History Club, and the membership expanded to include men.
Among others who spoke at the church were:
--Educator Booker T. Washington in 1914.
-- Cellist Pablo Casals in 1923.
-- Humorist and publisher Bennett Cerf in 1947.
-- Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Bert Andres in 1951.
-- Poet Ogden Nash in 1953.
-- Civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ralph Bunche in 1955.
-- Filipino statesman and writer Carlos Pena Romulo in 1956.
When interviewed a decade ago about the club, Al said he was not sure when the last speaker came to Janesville. He was updating the church history at the time.
Jim Hay of the church is proud that First Congregational allowed people to talk about social justice and civil rights.
“I wonder if any other churches would have reached out to women and African American speakers in the 1900s,” he said.
Barbara Hough, Al's daughter, refers to her parents as adventurous people.
“Maybe Earhart was an inspiration to my dad,” she said.
Barbara of Boston and her sister Nancy of Delaware were at the church in Janesville for a historic homes tour last month. They shared their father's story of meeting Earhart.
“The Congregational church has been such a presence in the community for so many years,” Barbara said.
Al never flew airplanes.
But he and Lois started The Wisconsin Wagon Co., a small manufacturer of handcrafted coaster wagons and other wooden toys. Al also worked many years at his family's business, the Janesville-based Hufcor.
“So many are inclined to stay home with the TV,” Al said in a 2003 interview.
“But, for many years, the congregational church was quite the place to be.
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.