By Deborah Fisher and Kellen Diamanti, May 1, 2019
Editor’s note: The National Postal Museum is happy to welcome back guest bloggers Deborah Fisher and Kellen Diamanti. Fisher and Diamanti spent many hours in the National Postal Museum’s library collecting information for their book about the famed Inverted Jenny, entitledStamp of the Century. In a two part series, the authors introduce some of the people they met along the way!
Researching a book as eclectic as Stamp of the Century gives one a good, friendly reason to look up interesting strangers. Since our book about the Scott C3a or Inverted Jenny covers the past 100 years, we enjoyed dozens of conversations with fascinating people: descendants and descendants of associates of fliers, post office personnel, and stamp collectors, not to mention living philatelic merchants who actually knew some of the best characters. Digging, detective work, persistence, and pure luck led us to them, and when the National Postal Museum (NPM) launched Stamp of the Century in May, concurrent with NPM’s Postmen of the Skies exhibit, we got to meet some of them face to face. Wonderful people came from Texas, California, Connecticut, and Maryland to keep the conversation going. Here they are, organized chronologically by the character they’re tied to.
Second assistant postmaster general Otto Praeger was the point man for the Post Office Department, assigned the task of launching airmail by fellow Texan, Postmaster General Albert Burleson. Praeger was known for being tough and getting the job done. Once airmail launched in 1918, Praeger tenaciously pushed the service to go farther and faster, using increasingly more sophisticated technology.
His tenure was not without controversy or cost, however. Insisting that pilots fly no matter the weather, Praeger once said to the Aircraft Manufacturer’s Association, “Pilots are as temperamental as chorus girls but gradually the Post Office Department is eliminating these men and substituting men who need no coddling, but who respond regardless of weather or any other condition.” Public battles between Praeger and his pilots over weather resulted in strikes and firings, and unfortunately, a number of deaths before the government turned airmail over to nascent commercial airlines in 1926.
References to Praeger in several airmail histories such as Mavericks in the Sky indicate that he left behind an unpublished memoir titled Moss from a Rolling Stone. Reading through a 2008 online article about Praeger in Smithsonian Air and Space magazine, Deborah found a short conversation between two people who said they were Praeger descendants. Searching online for the contact information for one of them led to granddaughter Diana Phillips who revealed that her sister, Rebecca, had a treasure trove of all of Praeger’s personal papers, including the memoir. An even bigger surprise, however, was learning that all three of Otto Praeger’s daughters were still alive.
A widower with three sons in 1928, Praeger married Carrie Will Coffman, a music teacher twenty-seven years his junior, and almost immediately sailed off to Otto’s new job in Thailand, helping the country establish its airmail service. Carrie gave birth to three daughters—Janet, Elinor, and Helen—at the British Nursing Home in Bangkok. Deborah interviewed Janet, age eighty-eight, in 2017.
Janet told lovely stories that softened the picture of tough-guy Praeger, who bonded with Carrie over music and loved taking her to the opera. Janet recalled that, though Carrie stood an inch taller than Otto, he encouraged her to wear high heels and big hats.
“When I was a little girl,” Janet told us, “I loved to climb all over him. My mother didn’t care for that much, but he loved it. He was very patient.”
Diana and Rebecca brought their mom to the NPM book launch events in May. Janet toured her father’s original wood-paneled office which now houses exhibits, and she saw photos of him everywhere. She told us she always knew the story about her dad’s involvement in the first airmail flights, saying, “I would imagine he would have had some excitement and though a little nervous, he would have been confident things would go well.” The smile on her face says everything about her day at the museum.
A single name given to Deborah by airmail expert Don Jones led to finding descendants of pilot James Clark Edgerton. At twenty-two, Edgerton was the youngest of the six pilots who flew the mail on May 15, 1918. The Post Office Department assigned him to the mission because his father was the purchasing agent for the department. A famous photo of Edgerton celebrating his arrival in D.C. shows him with his younger sister, Elizabeth. But it wasn’t until Don Jones told us the story of attending a convention and seeing the spitting image of James Clark Edgerton walk through the door that we made progress finding living relatives.
The man was James F. Edgerton, nephew of the pilot, and Don recalled him living in Texas. Unfortunately, James F. died in 2011, but his obituary yielded the name of his daughter, Natalie Woodward, and her husband Greg. LinkedIn produced a Greg Woodward with business in Texas. Natalie excitedly responded to a voicemail message Deborah left.
She knew a lot about her famous Uncle Clark, and she had a number of hundred-year-old boxes full of material with which she helped flesh out his story. Though she grew up aware of family accomplishments, she said her relatives didn’t really talk about them. “It was just part of what they did, part of serving their country. They recognized the importance, but didn’t harp on it. To see a member of my family recognized at the museum was very touching.” It was just as big a treat to meet Natalie and her husband at the book launch.
To complete the flight family picture we needed to find a descendant of Major Reuben Fleet, Army Signal Corps officer in charge of launching airmail for the Post Office Department. Actually, Fleet is most famous for work he did after airmail, starting Consolidated Aircraft in 1923, which went on to design and build military trainers, bombers, transports and seaplanes, including the PBY Catalina and B-24 Liberator.
A lot can be learned about Fleet online and in the history books. Married three times, he had a number of children. (One son, Sandy, co-founded the company that created WD-40, founded Fotomat, and launched a precursor to theater surround-sound.) Fleet’s papers are housed at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, just one of many organizations he helped start in San Diego, his home after moving Consolidated from Buffalo.
It wasn’t until we were planning our 2016 research trip to NPM that Deborah thought to ask a person at the San Diego Air and Space Museum if there were any living Fleets. Consequently, she sent an email to the San Diego Foundation, which is known to have the continued involvement of the Fleet family. The reply was a Fleet jackpot with five Fleet family members listed on the forwarding email.
The first reply came from Susan Fleet-Welch, a daughter by Reuben’s third wife, Eve. Susan remembered her dad as an “incredible” father who showed much love to all of his children. “Dinner times were especially fun because Dad would give us oral math problems,” she said. The kids would shout out the answers, trying to be first. He would also correct their grammar by clearing his throat until they got the phrasing right, and he was always giving them new vocabulary words to learn.
It was Reuben’s great granddaughter, Lori Fleet-Martin, who was able to bring her son and daughter to the NPM events. Lori had known Reuben from summer’s spent swimming in the big pool at his house, just a few doors down from where she lived. She remembers him by his organizational motto stamped in enormous letters on the Consolidated building in San Diego—“Nothing short of right is right.”
“He was a go-getter who didn’t like to wait for a committee vote,” Lori said. “But he was also very kind and generous. There are numerous stories about him taking care of kids whose parents were lost in the war or sending them away to school. He believed in education before anything.” Lori said that while the entire family knows the Consolidated story well, it was a real treat for her and kids to walk through the NPM airmail exhibit and learn more about Reuben’s early exploits.
Check back next week for "Stamp and Flight Families: Part II." "Postmen of the Skies" is open through May 27, 2019 at the National Postal Museum. The exhibition celebrates the world’s first regularly scheduled airmail service and the brave pilots who risked their lives flying the mail.