Being Amelia

Who is Amelia Earhart?

November 2013

By the summer of 2001, Earhart was 18 and preparing to leave home for her freshman year at the University of Kansas when her stepfather told her that he’d been hiding inappropriate feelings for her.

She didn’t tell anyone for a year. Finally, one day, Earhart says she got into an argument with her stepfather and called her father to ask for help. Glen was in a long-term relationship with another woman by then and was working as a horseshoer in southwest Colorado. He drove two days from Pagosa Springs to rescue his daughter. The moment she fled, Earhart later realized, helped define her. “I left with nothing,” she says. “I learned that if I’m going to pull this off, I’m going to do it on my own.”

She spent a year in Pagosa Springs, saving money from jobs on a golf course grounds crew and as a server at a nearby restaurant. By 2003, she’d secured financial aid and used some of her own money to pay for school at Colorado State University, which she attended for a few months. In 2004, she transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder, where she became an English major and imagined herself as a high school teacher. She seemed to be back on course: Her mother had already left her stepfather, and Earhart allowed herself to settle into college life.

But at CU, her name attracted attention, just as it did everywhere else. Now, though, when she’d tell yet another person she wasn’t a pilot, she felt a bit of guilt. It sounds strange, she admits, but for whatever reason, it was like she thought that part of the first Amelia should also be a part of her. “I felt like I was disappointing people because I wasn’t a pilot,” she says. “Here I am, Amelia Earhart, and I don’t fly.”

On June 2, 2004, Earhart took $60 from her savings and spent it on a “discovery flight” out of Centennial Airport. It was a clear afternoon, and the instructor let Earhart do most of the work. At 9,000 feet, she finally felt free. “I felt like Amelia was right there, cheering me on,” she says. Shortly afterward, she began regular flying lessons.

That was only the second-most fateful thing to happen to Earhart that year: A dean at the University of Colorado had learned about the Amelia Earhart on campus who happened to be related to the famous aviatrix and wanted to become a pilot. Soon there was a short profile in Campus Press.
A couple of weeks later, KOA radio called. “I thought it’d be a cute little feature we could do for the holidays,” says Kathy Walker, the station’s news director. “ ‘Amelia Earhart comes to Boulder.’ ” At the end of the interview, Walker stopped the tape. “Her face fell,” Walker remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do a story on you. I want to hire you.’ ” Walker called Lee Larsen, then the market manager of Clear Channel Denver, and told him she was going to hire the young woman. “I was in awe,” Larsen remembers of his first meeting with Earhart. “It was pretty clear she wasn’t trying to tread on a famous name. She was mature, unlike most college students you meet.”

Earhart worked the split shift at KOA—early mornings and late nights—and went to classes during the day. She did small reporting jobs, worked her way into feature stories, and covered traffic for Clear Channel stations around Denver and remotely for stations from Seattle to Phoenix. Shortly after starting her job in 2004, she was asked to join a mission to search the South Pacific for the original Earhart’s crashed Lockheed 10-E Electra. “I think it would probably be a pretty pivotal moment in my life and extremely important to my family” if plane remains were found, she said in an article that was published in newspapers across the country and identified her as the original Earhart’s third cousin. Though Amelia Rose ultimately didn’t go, the article solidified her as the most noteworthy living member of a family she’d never actually met.

With interest in her personal story now growing, Earhart wanted to learn more about her namesake’s history. “I was being asked all these questions, and I had to talk intelligently about Amelia,” Earhart says. She bought books and read the newspaper stories that seemed to pop up every couple of months, most of which centered on the disappearance. Perhaps because of that research, she also decided she needed to know the depth of her relationship to the first Amelia. “It just seemed to be the right thing to do, to confirm that link,” she says. In 2004 or 2005, she says she hired a genealogist—Earhart now says she can’t remember the person’s name, nor does she have any documentation—who returned with less-than-compelling evidence. Earhart was not a third cousin of the famous pilot. Instead, she says, she learned her family and the original Amelia Earhart’s family had an 18th-century link to a county in Pennsylvania. “Distant, common ancestry,” the genealogist called it. “The relationship wasn’t as close as I was led to believe, but there was still something there,” she told me this past June. Despite the initial disappointment, she was relieved she had a connection, however tenuous it seemed to be.

Earhart quit college in 2005 to move into helicopter traffic work at KOA. She then accepted a job-share with 9News (she transitioned solely to TV in 2007). She was an immediate hit. Although she wrestled with being squarely in the spotlight for the first time, it was a dream scenario: She was a rising star in a top-20 television market with a memorable name.

Bigger opportunities arose within a couple of years. She left Denver in 2009 and took a traffic job at KCAL-TV in Los Angeles. Moving to a city with lots of high-profile celebrities was especially liberating; she was gloriously anonymous and could focus on her job. She was also making more money than she’d seen in her lifetime, which was a boon to her flying career.

On a solo flight one evening, Earhart was preparing to land a Cessna 172 when she looked out over the Pacific Ocean on her final approach. The sky was the color of a sapphire and the stars popped around her. “It was mind-blowing,” she remembers. “There’s a point where you lift the nose up and you flare, and I could only see the sky and the water and the stars. It sounds really dorky, but I was thinking about what it would be like to cross an ocean.”