For most of her life, Anne Billingsley Kerr kept close the memory of her four years as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines in the 1950s.
When Northwest was absorbed by Delta in 2008, Kerr pulled out boxes filled with recruitment brochures, training manuals and other mementos. There was even a newspaper clipping about her participation in a life-raft drill on Lake Nokomis. It was more than just nostalgia, for Kerr soon self-published a book that recalled “a time when passenger flight was an adventure and the Boeing Stratocruiser ruled the skies.”
“That really was like a love of her life,” said Bob DuBert, who, like Kerr before him, now edits the quarterly newsletter of the Northwest Airlines Historical Society.
Kerr died Aug. 19 from mesothelioma. She was 83.
Kerr’s book, “Fujiyama Trays & Oshibori Towels” blazed through four printings and then a second edition. The book connected her to the local Northwest Airlines history group and spawned a late-in-life foray into blogging that drew still more stories from generations of NWA alumni.
Kerr was in her 20s when she began flying for Northwest. Under the airline’s rules, she had to resign when she married at 25 in 1960. She later divorced and worked in marketing for Marriott Hotels and later at AAA’s travel business before she purchased the Apartment Guide in 1976. She spent another 12 years in real estate and nearly two decades working part-time at the Golden Valley Library.
But NWA’s demise unleashed a final act for Kerr that forged more relationships than maybe any other decade of her life. Longtime friend Joan Lee, who helped edit Kerr’s book, remembered Kerr filling a whiteboard with Post-it notes for each story she wanted to tell.
“No grass grew beneath her feet,” Lee said.
For Kerr, Northwest symbolized an era of postwar optimism, a time before the chaos of deregulation, bankruptcies and endless security lines. Male passengers wore suits and ties, and women flew in dresses and high heels. Her book’s title paid homage to the elaborate hors d’oeuvres trays and warm scented towels offered to passengers.
“If you grew up in Minneapolis, you grew up seeing airplanes with big red tails,” said her son, Rick Kerr. “Most everybody had the North Star, but for my mother and for me, we had the Northwest star.”
Rick Kerr made a cameo in one chapter of his mother’s book, as Anne Kerr recalled bringing home a baseball signed midflight by Hank Aaron. It later vanished during a “show and tell” at Rick’s school.
In her book and on her Lady Skywriter Blog — which will stay active thanks to Kerr’s endowment — Kerr singled out the Boeing B-377 Stratocruiser as her most memorable vessel. It had spacious sleeping cabins, a cocktail lounge and specially designed turbosuperchargers for an extra boost in flight. An electric organ was installed on one flight, others had airborne fashion shows and church services.
“She was big and she was fast and no other aircraft exemplified passenger comfort like the Stratocruiser,” Kerr wrote.
Kerr earned the 2009 Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame Writer of the Year Award for her book. After she joined the NWAHC, she also helped organize regular speaker events that included the co-pilot from the flight hijacked from D.B. Cooper — a recording of which was later sold on DVD in the NWAHC gift shop.
“People lined up out the door — that was her idea,” said Fay Kulenkamp, a former NWA stewardess.
Kerr is survived by her son, Richard, and brother, John Billingsley. A memorial service will be held Oct. 7 from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. at the Northwest Airlines History Centre’s new location inside the Crowne Plaza Aire Hotel, 3 Appletree Square, Bloomington.