Being Amelia

Who is Amelia Earhart?

November 2013

These days, everyone wants a piece of Amelia Rose. There’s her 4:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. shift at the NBC affiliate in Denver, KUSA (9News), for which she rises at 2:30 a.m. and prepares to deliver traffic updates to 3.8 million viewers across the majority of Colorado each morning. After work there are potential flight sponsors to meet, Facebook messages that need responses, photos she needs to tweet, a lawyer who’s asking her for a few minutes, a meeting that needs to be scheduled, a flight that needs to get done, a call she should make to her co-pilot. Her 19-hour days sometimes end with her asleep on the couch of her south Denver townhome, her “chiweenie” mix, Nubbin, at her side, a flight manual in her hands. “Every time I think about taking a break, there’s something in me that won’t let it happen,” she says. “When you have a name like this, there’s a lot to live up to.”

Which is why, these days, she has had to regulate herself when yet another message pops up in her inbox or is posted on her Facebook page. As she’s inched closer to her world flight, the haters have come out in full force. She’s heard the criticisms, most of which center on the same theme: She’s a no-talent hack who got her job and her status because she exploited a famous name. She got her pilot’s license because she exploited a famous name. And, most recently, the around-the-world flight is just another way for her to exploit a famous name.

Lately, Earhart has seen notes from people who seem to be rooting against her on her quest, not-so-subtly hinting they wouldn’t mind if Amelia Rose disappeared forever, too. “I will laugh if the same thing happens to her,” someone posted on a news site in July when the world flight was officially announced. When Earhart began working in television seven years ago, she suffered each sling against her. Now, it’s her mother, Debbie Dale, who keeps track of the latest insults, reporting dutifully back to her only child each real or perceived slight. “I can’t stand when someone says something bad about her,” Debbie says. “They have no idea what she’s been through to get to where she is.”

Amelia, however, hasn’t always made it easy on herself. Her constant presence on social media—from the photos of her with planes to the persistently positive messages and self-promotional notes she posts on various sites—can come across as immature, maybe even spoiled. (“Up early to head to championship day at the Denver Polo Classic….” “I hate saying no—but sometimes it has to be done to figure out what is right and best for each situation! Sigh!” “As I look towards my weekend plans, one thing sticks out: jumping out of an airplane at the Longmont airshow.”) Not that she’s about to stop. “I get the perception of ‘Amelia,’ ” she says. “All I do is run around with this big smile on my face, trying to do good shit. I’m fine with that.”

But, really, if you want to get to the root of the hate, it is in the inexactness of her relationship to Amelia Mary Earhart—a connection she freely admits factored into her landing her first job in Denver and is inexorably linked to much of the attention she enjoys today. In early articles about her and her namesake, newspapers reported she was a third cousin of the famous pilot. She later tried to clarify the relationship, saying she’d hired a genealogist who said the two Amelias shared a “distant, common ancestry,” an ambiguous term neither she, nor anyone else, made too much of an effort to pin down.
As plans for the flight moved forward, Earhart tried to brush away what she referred to as “the negativity.” But the attention she was about to receive—everything from national print articles to an interview on Today—would only make the doubts about her relation to Amelia Mary more prevalent, more pressing. The trip would become secondary to the question Amelia Rose wasn’t asking herself. A question she feared, perhaps, because she might learn the real answer: Who is Amelia Earhart?

This past spring, a woman from the Amelia Earhart Festival, held annually in Atchison, Kansas, sent a message via Amelia Rose’s Facebook fan page. The message said Earhart had been chosen for the Amelia Earhart Pioneering Achievement Award, which is given out at the festival each July to a woman who “exemplifies the spirit of Amelia and works to show women that the sky is no longer the limit.” Along with a 10-inch bronze bust of the original Earhart, Amelia Rose would be given a $10,000 check that she could use to fund scholarships for the Fly With Amelia Foundation, her registered nonprofit.

Her face was splashed on brochures, and a reporter from a television station in nearby St. Joseph, Missouri, drove to Atchison to interview her. There was a hopefulness about the entire event. “The two Amelias have to be connected,” Louise Foudray, caretaker and historian of the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, told me by phone weeks before. “I mean, look at Amelia Rose’s size, how beautiful she is. It’s just like Amelia.”

On July 20—the third day of the festival, which drew an estimated 60,000 people to the 11,000-person town over the course of three days—Earhart was feted in the cafeteria at Benedictine College, a Catholic school near the tree-lined banks of the Missouri River. After lunch, she was called to the podium. There was polite applause from the 120-or-so people sitting among white-clothed tables. Earhart spoke for 17 minutes and talked about children and education; how more women needed to get involved in aviation; and how she wanted her work to inspire others. She spoke of how flying transformed her, how the original Amelia helped shape her life. When she finished, she received a standing ovation.

Afterward, Earhart went to the museum. It was roughly an eight-block ride from the college to the former home of the first Amelia’s grandparents, where she spent part of her childhood. Earhart was greeted inside the Victorian house turned museum, signed the guestbook, and then passed from room to room, looking at photos and admiring the architecture.

Everywhere she went in the house, someone wanted to talk.

Are you really flying around the world?

Is your name really Amelia Earhart?

Are you related?

In a first-floor room at one end of a long, windowed hallway, a museum volunteer asked Earhart to sit with her at a wooden table. The woman had a round face, a sweet smile, and a soft, motherly voice. She produced a sheet of paper and a pen and explained she was retracing the many branches of the original Amelia’s family.

“Could you give me some of your family members’ names?” the woman asked.
Earhart stammered; she seemed uncertain how to handle the request. “I don’t know,” she said. A few uncomfortable seconds passed. The woman at the table looked down at her blank paper. Earhart explained that she’d had an exploratory phone call with the website ancestry.com, which was considering conducting a genealogical search as part of a possible sponsorship for the around-the-world flight.

“I’m not sure they’d want me to do this,” she said. “I’m sorry—”

“That’s OK,” the woman interrupted. “That’s fine.”

There was another uncomfortable pause.

“What the heck, I guess I can do it,” Earhart said finally. She pulled up some documents on her phone and spelled out family names. After the woman from the museum double-checked the names, she thanked Earhart. “We’ll get back to you when we have something,” she said.

A couple of hours later, Earhart and I drove to a restaurant in downtown Atchison. She was nervous and angry. “I could tell that woman didn’t like me,” she said. “She just wants to be able to come back and say there’s no relationship.”

It started innocently enough. Her father, Glen Earhart, explains how—before baby Amelia was born in Downey, California, in 1983—Glen and Debbie decided they wanted to give their daughter an unforgettable name, something that would stand out among the Jennifers and Jessicas they knew would someday populate America’s elementary school classrooms. Glen, who was a carpenter with an independent streak, had grown up with stories that his branch of the Earhart clan had sprung from the same tree as that other Earhart family. The relationship was difficult to decipher—Glen heard family tales that his father was in some way related to the original Earhart—but no one in his family had ever met another Amelia Earhart relative, and no one followed up on the connection. When the couple’s daughter was born, it was Debbie—now Glen’s ex-wife—who thought “Amelia” was the only name suitable for her daughter. “It was perfect,” Debbie says now. “We knew she’d do something great with her life.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Glen has a different take. “We didn’t think about the future,” he says. “We were a couple of young, hippie-type parents. We just thought it was way cool.”
But it wasn’t cool, at least at first, to little Amelia. As her parents remember it, sometime around second or third grade, their daughter came home from school in tears. Her teacher had told the story of Amelia Earhart, the famous aviatrix who disappeared during a trip around the world and was presumed to have died. Other students made fun of Amelia. “She was so mad,” Debbie says. “She was like, ‘Thanks, Mom, for naming me after someone who disappeared into the ocean.’ ”

Amelia soon started going by “Amy,” which she’d use for much of her childhood. By the time she was a teenager, her parents had explained the importance of her birth name—the woman behind it and her vague relationship to her (“Third cousin was such an abstract term to me,” Amelia Rose says now)—but they didn’t fight their daughter’s decision to separate herself from it. They’d given her a big name, and they realized it was something she needed to grow into—to stretch and tailor so it would fit the woman who might someday wear it.

In the late 1980s, Debbie and Glen divorced and Earhart bounced between the two, never living in the same place for more than a year. (To date, she’s lived in 32 different homes.) In the mid-1990s—just before Amy started her sophomore year of high school—her mother met a man, got remarried, and moved from Hesperia, California, to his place in Tonganoxie, Kansas, a bedroom community of a few thousand that’s 30 miles outside Kansas City, Missouri. While she’d continue to share time between her parents, Amy lived primarily in Kansas. Coincidentally, Tonganoxie happens to be 38 miles from the original Amelia’s birthplace in Atchison, Kansas.

The move was a difficult transition, but when she joined the Tonganoxie High School debate team in 1999, she felt as if she’d found her niche. Almost immediately she realized she had a skill for persuasive speaking. She traveled throughout Kansas and earned her way to two championship competitions in New York City. In preparation for the debates, Earhart looked for any edge she could find. “She wanted me to go to LensCrafters to get her glasses without a prescription because she thought they’d make her look smarter,” Debbie says. Ultimately, Amy Earhart decided to use the biggest home-field advantage of any high schooler in eastern Kansas. Amelia was reborn.