The countryside surrounding West Lafayette has changed since the 1930s, but the view from the air still frames neatly gridded farm fields and the gentle curve of the Wabash River. Amelia Earhart logged plenty of hours over that landscape in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra, training for her most famous—and final—flight.
Her days at Purdue came at the request of university President Edward Elliot. In 1935, the aviator became the first women’s career counselor in the nation, in an effort to expand ladies’ education beyond the standard home economics regimen. “Amelia was one of the most famous women in the world. It was like having a rock star move in,” says John Norberg, author and retired director of communications for development at Purdue. She not only spoke formally in the classroom, but also talked with students informally in the lounges and dining halls.
Earhart wore pants everywhere, which defied Purdue’s rule that women were only allowed to wear skirts or dresses on campus. When students complained to Dean of Women Dorothy Stratton, wishing also to wear them, she always replied, “When you can fly an airplane solo across the Atlantic Ocean, then you can wear slacks in the Purdue dining hall.”
President Elliot was moved to help Earhart in her novel next quest to fly around the world at the equator. The newly established Purdue Research Foundation funded the flight, which took off in March 1937. Earhart worked with her navigator, Fred Noonan, to map the course westward from California, but engine trouble left them grounded in Hawaii. Back at Purdue, she repaired the plane and plotted a new route east this time, departing from Miami on June 1, 1937. After a month, the adventure abruptly ended over the Pacific Ocean.
Norberg adds that although Earhart was ahead of her time in relation to the women’s movement, she wasn’t that far ahead of the need, noting how essential it was to have women ready for the workplace during World War II and how the pilot helped prepare many for that role. To Norberg, she remains an enigma. “She was this beautiful comet that inspired so many people,” he says, “and then just disappeared.”
But her influence on Purdue didn’t. The Amelia Earhart Archives, the largest collection of such memorabilia in the world, is still housed at Purdue, where home economics is no longer a major.