Obituary: Stewardess Helen Richardson loved excitement of early air travel

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 26, 2014 - 1:39 PM

Helen Richardson. courtesy of the family.

On a dare from her future husband in 1939, Helen Richardson applied for a job as an airline stewardess. Aviation was shiny, new and glamorous, and flight attendants were practically famous.

As a result of that dare, Richards was the third stewardess hired by Northwest Airlines.

“I don’t think she ever would have considered herself a pioneer, but she was,” said her son, Bill Richardson, who lives in Minneapolis.

Richardson died Jan. 6 at Friendship Village in Bloomington. She was 99.

Born and raised in Winthrop, Minn., Richardson (then Helen Jacobson), was a nurse at St. Paul Bethesda Hospital when she got to know a shy medical student named Bill Richardson. He offered to relieve her from baby-watching duty, and they struck up a friendship. She mentioned her passing interest in being an airline stewardess.

Back then, only nurses could be stewardesses. Planes flew low, flights were bumpier, passengers were constantly sick and bad weather could easily force overnight stops in remote places. Richardson encouraged Jacobson to give it a try and teased her about it.

“She was dared by my father, and he said, ‘Oh, I don’t think you’ll do it,’ ” said Mary Jo Nelson, Richardson’s daughter, who lives in Redmond, Wash.

To his surprise, she did it. She started and worked briefly for United Airlines, then was hired by Northwest, the Twin Cities-based airline.

New flight attendants were not only required to be nurses, but they had to be white, female, unmarried, between 21 and 25 years old, less than 120 pounds, and between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 5 inches tall.

Dark-haired and elegant, Richardson met the requirements, and relished her position. She flew when flying was mostly for the rich and famous, met John Kennedy and Joe Louis and once had a Coke with John Barrymore, appeared on television and signed autographs on her regular route from the Twin Cities to Seattle.

Once, when her brother was studying to be a veterinarian in Ames, Iowa, he tried to set her up with a young Des Moines radio broadcaster named Ronald Reagan. Alas, a snowstorm prevented her from getting there to meet him, Bill Richardson said.

“She was always embarrassed by that, when my uncles would tell that story,” he said.

She kept in touch with Bob Richardson while he interned in Detroit and she became an instructor for younger stewardesses.

When she started training stewardesses for Northwest, the airline was going through rapid turnover because marriage for a stewardess meant she had to quit. Richardson made a rule that new hires had to promise to serve for a year before getting married.

“They must learn to say no,” the Chicago Sun quoted her saying.

When Bob Richardson proposed to her and they were married about a month after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, newspapers across the Midwest had a heyday, gleefully pointing out the irony.

“No. 1 Love-Hater of Airways Tossed Into Spin by Cupid,” the Chicago Sun crowed. “Matrimony’s Arch Enemy Marries,” was the headline in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune.

She settled into life as a homemaker in St. Paul, and her years as a stewardess became a fond memory, said her son, Bill.

“She loved that excitement, she loved to talk about it, but she was about as family-oriented as anyone could be,” he said.

She volunteered at St. Timothy Lutheran Church, where she and her husband, a Minneapolis doctor, were founding members. She helped with the Girl Scouts. She volunteered at her children’s schools. She was a hard worker who always had a project going and was always dressed to the nines.

“She was far more comfortable in high heels well into her 90s,” Nelson said.

Later in life she became involved in a Northwest Airlines ex-stewardesses association and organized a reunion in the late 1980s.

Preceded in death by her husband, she is survived by four children, nine grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and six nieces. Services have been held.

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