Central High School health science teacher Chris Hammond worked for three years to accomplish the installation of a state historical marker dedicated to Mary Frances Housley, a former Central High School student who earned posthumous acclaim for her actions following a plane crash nearly 70 years ago. On Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, an unveiling and dedication ceremony were held at the site (Tazewell Pike at Forestal Drive).
Saving passengers from a burning airplane is a job for stalwart professionals in asbestos suits, not for petite 24-year-old women. But Mary Frances Housley went back into the aircraft’s flaming wreckage 11 times. What made her do it?
Mary Frances Housley was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Oct. 12, 1926, in the North Hills area, but the family moved to Fountain City and Mary Frances attended Central High School from 1940-44. The 1944 Centralite indicates her wide-ranging interests and accomplishments: Girl Reserves, Bowling Club, Science Club, Glee Club, Cantata, Commercial Club – yet she was also a member of the Honor Society.
John H. Housley (1888-1959) and Fannie Mayer Housley (1894-1977) and their two children, John Jr. and Mary Frances, lived at 300 Forestal Drive during Mary Frances’ high school years. Her father, a native of Fincastle near LaFollette, was owner of the Housley Cigar Company.
The Central High principal, Hassie K. Gresham, also molded character as she stimulated young minds to be active participants in the learning experience. As she taught the Holy Bible and the works of Shakespeare in senior literature class or during the weekly chapel meetings in the main auditorium, Gresham drew on her years of teaching and administration for the object lessons she used.
Those were war years and Gresham held students spellbound relating incidents of servicemen who once attended Central. She referred to the marble tablet on the auditorium wall which bore the names of seven Fountain City boys who died in World War I. Above that list a paraphrase of John 15:13 was engraved, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
These early influences from dedicated educators, together with the lessons she learned from her parents at home, must have prepared Mary Frances for the events of Sunday, Jan. 14, 1951.
After high school she worked for a succession of doctors in Jacksonville, Florida, as an office assistant. When her current employer was recalled for active duty in the Navy in 1950, she applied for a position as flight attendant (then called stewardess) with National Airlines. She was hired the next day.
She and another fledgling flight attendant, Peggy Egerton, found an apartment in Vernon Terrace, Jacksonville. Mary Frances had acquired the nickname Frankie by now. Peggy recalled how Frankie was loving life and loving people. More than once an exuberant Frankie awakened her roommate as she returned from a date to announce, “Peggy, wake up! I’ve got to tell you all about it. He’s the most wonderful man! I’m in love!” Events would soon intervene.
On Saturday, Jan. 13, 1951, Frankie called Peggy Egerton from the Jacksonville airport and said, “… Darndest luck, I’ve got to work, so no double date tonight. Some girls were sick, and there was a foul-up.”
She flew to Newark, New Jersey, that day, planning to fly the Norfolk, Virginia, shuttle and return to Jacksonville on Monday. But that was not to be. Instead, on Sunday, Jan. 14, she was on National’s Flight 83, a DC4, from Newark to Norfolk with an intermediate stop in Philadelphia. Rain and snow swirled around the slushy runway as they approached the Philadelphia airport. Although it was mid-afternoon, the pilot was ordered to make an instrument landing.
The 25 passengers and three-person crew landed on the 6,000-foot runway but overran it and plunged through a fence with most of the fuselage thrust across a 10-foot ditch. The left wing was severed. The high-octane gasoline tanks ruptured and the fuel ignited.
Frankie Housley wrestled the cabin door open and looked down at the ground eight feet below. Adults and children were screaming behind her. Down there was safety and Frankie could have been the first to jump. Instead she went back to her passengers, as she had been trained to do in the five months she had been an attendant. Working swiftly, she released the seatbelts that balked at the efforts of frantic passengers.
In all Frankie made 11 trips from the door into the cabin, guiding frightened passengers to the door and urging them to jump. Some were reluctant and she shoved them. Maybe they would be slightly injured, but they would survive.
An 18-year-old sailor told reporters a few hours later, “The stewardess was the calmest person on the plane.”
“She was calm and tried to quiet those passengers who were yelling,” said a young soldier. The pilot and the co-pilot were out, unscathed and unburned, as were most of the passengers. But Mary Frances did not return from her 11th trip back into the hot and smoking plane. After the fire subsided and the wreckage had cooled, they found her body with a 4-month-old baby cradled in her arms.
Sometime later the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission presented her parents a bronze medal recognizing Mary Frances’ heroic acts. Famed author MacKinlay Kantor visited Knoxville and interviewed some of her teachers for his May 1966 Reader’s Digest article, “A Girl Named Frankie” and brought nationwide recognition to our hometown hero.
Who can say what molds such courage? Perhaps the answer is on that marble plaque on the wall in Central High School, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Mary Frances Housley and her parents are buried in the family plat in Lynnhurst Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee.
(Author’s Note. It is fitting that the state historic marker is implanted on the lawn of the professional building originally occupied by two of Ms. Housley’s 1944 CHS classmates, Dr. Robert Brooks, family physician, and Dr. Charles Wolfenbarger, family dentist.)
Jim Tumblin, retired optometrist and active historian, writes a monthly series called “Fountain City: Places That Made a Difference” for KnoxTNToday.com.