It’s a story to pierce your soul.
In January 1951, a National Airlines flight crashed and caught fire at a Philadelphia airport. As flames engulfed the wreckage, a flight attendant, Fountain City native Mary Frances “Frankie” Housley, went back into the inferno 10 times to bring passengers out. She was found dead after the flames died, cradling a 4-month-old baby named Brenda Joyce Smith in her arms.
If you’re “from around here” and never heard about Ms. Housley until recently, you’re not alone. For years, her memorials were few. A plaque at the first responders building at Philadelphia Airport. A room in a Florida children’s hospital, now closed. She was one of the first to grace the Central High School Wall of Fame. But two Central High teachers, separated by a decade, came together in a search for this heroic Fountain Citian, and their work has started the community on the path toward giving Ms. Housley the recognition she deserves.
For both teachers, the journey started in Central High’s Heritage Room, a small space in the Central library with memorabilia stretching across Central’s more than 100 years of history. A drawing of Ms. Housley hangs there, along with a 1966 Readers Digest story titled “A Girl Called Frankie.”
In the early 2000s, former Central history teacher Gordon Sisk caught sight of the drawing and was intrigued, so much that he made it a project for his AP U.S. history class.
“I said let’s see what we can find out about this,” Sisk said. “Somehow, we found one of the guys that survived that plane crash, and we somehow got a phone number. We took the class to the library and called him up on speakerphone.”
Their research was placed in the Heritage Room.
Fast-forward a decade or so. Sisk had been transferred to Karns High, and Chris Hammond was teaching health sciences at Central. A history hobbyist with some memorial projects already, Hammond visited the Heritage Room, and Ms. Housley’s drawing caught his eye.
“For me, I love researching genealogy and local history,” he said. “It’s a hobby, a way to get away from everything and kind of unplug.”
And that’s just what he did, building on that AP history class’s research and uncovering more and more, even a comic he found on eBay, New Heroic Comics Issue 68, with Ms. Housley’s story on the cover, a story titled “Supreme Sacrifice.”
Sisk and Hammond echo each other in their feelings about Ms. Housley’s story. It’s inspiring and emotional.
“She could have jumped out of that plane nine times earlier. She could have jumped out of that plane and lived,” said Sisk. “There’s a Bible verse that says, ‘No greater love hath he than to lay down his life for another.’ What would it take to do that? She didn’t think of herself. It just moved me to see that.”
“Her story was just so profound, and it just really impacted me on a personal and spiritual level,” said Hammond. “I want her story to be told.”
And why was a story so heroic and profound almost lost? Sisk has a theory.
“As a history person, when I studied history in the ’60s and ’70s we mostly learned history of presidents and generals,” he said. “It’s taken us a long time to learn the history of anybody else. If you read the history books you’d think there were just five or six women in history. It’s not just the history of white guys anymore. I find that fascinating.
“It’s just cool to see it be about the little people, for it not to be presidents and generals, but for it to be about one young lady who stepped up one day and went above and beyond.”
People are listening. Knoxville City Council recently voted to name the new bridge at Holbrook and Fountain Drive in Ms. Housley’s honor. Hammond has started a petition at Whitehouse.gov asking President Trump to posthumously award Ms. Housley the Presidential Citizens Medal, second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom in civilian honors.
Hammond has nominated Ms. Housley for inclusion in the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame, which is housed at the Tennessee Museum of Aviation in Sevierville. She is already included in the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame, but Hammond wants to see Ms. Housley recognized in her home state.
And eventually, he’d like to erect a monument to her memory, maybe in Fountain City Park or downtown Knoxville.
“In a perfect world, I think a lifesize bronze statue of her holding the baby would be awesome, but those statues are pretty pricey,” Hammond said. “That’s in the very, very early stages, the brainstorming, putting together some proposals kind of stage, but I at least want to try. She deserves that much. I’m not saying that bridge isn’t great. That was awesome that they did that, but I think we could do more.”
He invites community input and is looking for help funding the project. Those who are interested should contact him at [email protected].
In the meantime, Hammond has some of his research available to the public on Facebook. Maybe it’s time you got to know this hometown hero.