Sunday, April 4, 2010

Crone of the Week, An Early Aviatrix, (And a Geezer)

The first time she rode in a rickety open-cockpit biplane at the age of 8 in 1919, Elinor Smith (then called Elinor Patricia Ward) knew that “my future in airplanes and flying was as inevitable as the freckles on my nose.”

Ten days after she turned 16, she received her pilot’s license, becoming one of the youngest pioneers of aviation. She soon made headlines as the “Flying Flapper of Freeport”.

She made her first solo flight at the age of 15, and when she was 17, on a dare from boys at her high school, she took off from Roosevelt Field in Long Island and flew under the four East River bridges in Manhattan. For that stunt the Department of Commerce grounded her for 10 days, as was reported in The New York Times.

She was only 5 foot three inches tall, with curly blonde hair, but Elinor ranked high among the pioneering women of aviation, like Amelia Earhart. In January 1929 she set the women’s solo endurance record twice—flying 26 1/2 hours. In 1930 she set the women’s altitude record and then broke it a year later, almost losing her life when she passed our at about 30,000 feet as the motor sputtered and ran out of gas, then recovering a miles lower and guiding the plane down.

In 1934 she became the first woman on a Wheaties cereal box—a true Crone milestone.

She died on March 19 of this year, leaving a son and three daughters, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

She was 98 years old.


Also in the New York Times obituaries, I met a gentleman whom I believe deserves a Geezer of the Week award. (The blog “A Rolling Crone” is not sexist.)

Alberto Arroyo, born in 1916 in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, claimed to be the first person to jog around the Central Park Reservoir, back in 1937. At first he was using the bridle path below the reservoir to train for fights as a bantamweight boxer, but a police officer told him he was bothering the horses, so he started jogging on what was then a maintenance footpath around the reservoir.

He regularly ran ten times a day around the 1.6 mile circuit, making a total of more than 200,000 trips. He became known as the Mayor of Central Park and the founder of the modern fitness movement. Every day he held court on a bench at the reservoir’s South Gate House, where he greeted runners, provided free foot massages, stood on his head and gave psychological advice until he was 90, according to his New York Times obituary. He raised $100,000 from passing runners for Achilles International, which helps disabled runners. As he aged, he switched from running to walking, using a cane, then a walker. After a stroke in 2008, volunteers pushed him around the reservoir in a wheelchair, with a balloon attached to it.

Mr. Arroyo was said to have a daughter whom he had not seen since she was a child. He lived in a cheap hotel room and ate one meal a day at a senior center. He lived on Social Security and a small pension. But he was admired by famous people, film stars, tycoons and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who came by to thank him for a get-well card six days before she died. A short film about him was made last year.

Arroyo scorned material possessions and said he did not fear death. “You just go from one apartment to another.” He was 94 when he died on March 25th. Joggers created a memorial to him at the South Gate House, and more than a thousand came to his funeral.

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