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Meet Debbie Winegarten  

by Anne Marie Turner

Flying is not like anything else in the world.
- Katherine Stinson

The pilots quiet themselves in anticipation, and Debra Winegarten flashes her audience an easy smile. "Flying is not like anything else in the world," she begins, after a traditional speakerís "Thank you, for being here tonight." Winegartenís connection with this tight community of aviation enthusiasts is warm, instantaneous, and obvious. She invites her audience of flyers into her stories. The one she tells now is about Katherine Stinson, a petite barnstorming pioneer aviatrix from the early twentieth century. It is also Winegartenís story about how she came to write Stinsonís inspiring biography, Katherine Stinson : The Flying Schoolgirl

Winegarten came to know Stinsonís history through her mother, Ruthe Winegarten. "My mother was a research historian for the Texas Womenís History Project." Ruthe, along with a notable list of other accomplished women involved in the project, learned about Katherine and her sister Marjorie Stinson while compiling the historic exhibit. "She told me this would make a great childrenís book," recalls the younger Winegarten.

"I had a summer off between my undergraduate degree and going to graduate school. I knew that grad school would require research and writing, so I spent part of the summer researching, reading about Katherine, and wrote five chapters."

Winegarten learned Katherine was the fourth woman in the United States to receive her pilotís license in July 1912. Besides that, Stinson was the first pilot in the U. S. to carry pioneer airmail, the first woman to fly alone at night, the first woman in the world to perform the loop-the-loop, and the first pilot to perform skywriting in 1915. Stinson Field, the original airport in San Antonio and second longest continually operated airport in the United States, was founded by and named for Katherine and her business partner siblings, Marjorie, Eddie, and Jack.

The excitement of Katherineís story lies only partly in her long list of aviation accomplishments. Equally compelling are the stories Winegarten has woven together about how Stinson came to flying and succeeded.

Stinson was a young musician wanting to study in Europe. The large expense of travel and a European education forced her to contemplate a quick way to earn a large sum of money. A newspaper ad promising incredible earnings through barnstorming Ė flying early planes into rural areas and giving exhibitions of stunt flying or short joy rides Ė was her answer.

Eventually, she surmounted the difficulties in simply getting someone to teach a woman to fly in 1912, and in raising money to buy a used plane. One of Winegartenís favorite Stinson anecdotes is an account of Katherineís endeavors to clean up her first plane, and how the male pilots laughed at her. Stinson persisted with her efforts, found numerous wires and joints needing repair, and sent the men scurrying to check their own machines. Stinson then made it a practice to check her plane thoroughly before each flight; and is, thereby, credited with instituting pre-flight checks.

"One thing about writing history," says Winegarten, "we are looking back from where we are now. I donít think Katherine, in her own mindís eye, was a feminist. I donít think she set out to be a pilot to open up the field, but because she wanted to fly."

Winegarten didnít really set out to write this book. She gave the first five chapters to her mother before moving to Ohio to pursue her Masterís degree in Sociology. Actually, "I didnít plan on being a sociologist. I was studying physical therapy at Texas Womenís University (TWU). That was the closest legitimate profession that includes massage that I could get my father to go for." She thought she would "get a few electives out of the way" and signed up for sociology. "The instructor started talking about issues that I was passionate about. I ended up getting a Bachelor of Science in Sociology."

Much later, after graduate school at Ohio State and later teaching at the community college level in Cincinnati, Winegarten moved back to Texas to be closer to her family and to enjoy Austinís freer lifestyle. When she began looking for research and writing projects, her historian mother pulled the first five Stinson chapters from carefully maintained files. Ruthe Winegarten suggested that her daughter send the chapters to a publisher. Having published several books herself, the senior Winegarten had good experience with Eakin Press in Austin, so she pointed Debra in that direction with success. They liked it.

"I wrote the book with the audience in mind -- fifth through eighth grade girls -- to give them a role model of non-traditional women. I tried to keep the language clear. I didnít want the words to interfere with the story," says Winegarten. "I also kept it non-technical. I relied on my dad, whose education is in aeronautical engineering, to answer questions."

Despite the emphasis on telling a role model story for young women, Winegarten quickly found, as she traveled around the country promoting her book, that pilot groups are her core audience. "My first real presentation (of this book) was to the Austin 99ís." The Ninety-Nines, Inc. is an international womenís pilot organization of 6,500 members. The name comes from the original 99 founding members, including Marjorie Stinson and Amelia Earhart. It hasnít hurt that Texas Governor Rick Perry proclaimed April as Women in Aviation Month in Texas.

"It occurred to me," she continues," that Iím barnstorming like Katherine Stinson. The difference is Katherine flew her own plane, thrilling audiences with her flying. Iím thrilling them with her story." Currently, Winegarten flies commercially when she travels. She is scheduled, however, to take her first ride in a small, private plane during the next two weeks. "I plan to begin flying lessons soon," she adds.

Taking to the skies in between researching and writing projects wonít leave Winegarten much spare time. When she does have some, she enjoys playing her flute, swimming at Deep Eddy pool, hosting potluck dinners for friends, reading, stock market research, and "cats who own me." "I try to spend a portion of every day out of doors. And my family Ė family of origin as a sociologist would say Ė is important to me, as is a long term relationship with my heart partner, Cindy."

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The Countess Galleria / Sarah Higdon

"My main business philosophy is to nurture serendipity. I am always open for miraculous occurrences. Hand in hand with that is the practice of following everything through -- email, calls, etc. I try to take it wherever it can go. That practice provides me opportunities I might not otherwise think of myself," says Winegarten.

Researching Katherine gave Winegarten an opportunity to get to know the Stinson siblings. Marjorie, Eddie, and Jack all made contributions to early aviation history. Marjorie was the youngest female pilot and ran the Stinsonís flying school in San Antonio. Eddie became President of Stinson Aviation Company and developed the first flight technique for recovering from a tailspin.

"Iíve already started researching Marjorieís papers," says Winegarten. "Theyíre located in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. And Iím keeping notes on Eddieís story." These projects will have to take a back seat, though, to two other projects. Winegarten has a contract with the UT Press to produce her maternal family history; and she has a grant from the City of Austin to write Mike Eakinís (son of the late publisher, Ed Eakin) story. Winegarten explains, "Mike was a social activist, and at one time in the 1970ís was an editor of The Daily Texan at UT. He was murdered in Houston, and the murder remains unsolved."

"I love the research," says Winegarten. "Sociology is broad enough that you can study nearly anything, and can take on a global or individual perspective. It allows a freedom of thought. . . . My graduate degree is in qualitative research vs. quantitative. Thatís the stories, recognizing the patterns, and weaving them together. Thatís fun."

Winegarten recognized the patterns in Stinsonís freedom of thought that pilots value and her mother first saw in the Texas Womenís History Project. "Katherine was willing to be unreasonable to get what she wanted. Katherine was cautious, yes. She didnít take unnecessary risks. She wasnít afraid," says Winegarten. "If thereís something you want, figure out how to do it. Then, go do it."

Here's more of what Debbie had to say:

Who inspired you when you were growing up and why?

Jean-Pierre Rampal, one of the world's renowned flute players. He had a beautiful gold flute, his tone was sweet and pure, and he got paid to travel world-wide to play his flute. As an aspiring flutist, I thought it was a great idea to have others pay me to come see their countries.
My mother, Ruthe Winegarten. She was always having gatherings of powerful women over our house to discuss political ideas. She followed her bliss
and always had lots of projects she was working on, which she seemed to love. While many people talk about waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of their mother's sewing machine, I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of my mother typing on her IBM Selectric... still one of the most peaceful late-night sounds for me.

You are face to face with your ten-year-old self. You have one thing to say to her about her future, what do you say?

Many people will try and mold you and fit you into what they think is best for you... ignore them and stay true to your intuition. Your playful spirit which you bring to all things is one of the things people will adore about you as you grow up.

What is the biggest contradiction you see mothers being faced with today?

Having to choose between things they love... self, family, partners, career, and struggling to give adequate time and energy to all these things while staying balanced.

What do you see as your biggest challenge in being the kind of person you want to be?

Being a right-brained person in a left-brained world.

What makes you most happy about what you give back to the world?

The delight I see in people's eyes and hear in their voices when they've read one of my books, or heard me play the flute. I strive to live my life passionately and enjoy myself whether I'm housecleaning or giving a speech. I love it when I get emails from girls and women saying how inspired they are with Katherine Stinson -- I want to show that there are lots of ways for women to have their lives be extraordinary.

What two notable people would you like to see handcuffed together for a day?

This is the easiest question. I would like to handcuff Sharon and Arafat together, put them on the couch, make them feed milk and cookies to each other, and not uncuff them until they're rolling on the floor together, laughing.

What do you wish you could automatically grant, like a fairy godmother, to mothers during trying times?

An exact replica of themselves to lend an extra pair of hands, loving support, or just to give them a time-out so they could go sit in the creek and let the water run over their feet.
Thanks, Debbie!

Buy Debra Winegarten's book now:
Katherine Stinson : The Flying Schoolgirl 

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