Women Who Inspire Me to Be Who I am Meant to Be
If we only have one month to celebrate women, I feel pressure when trying to choose which women should be lauded and which women should be shelved for future celebrations, or not even mentioned because they are not making enough of a dent in a way that is publicly meaningful—or so it might be said. Some people, instead of choosing among the more widely recognized women, choose their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, or daughters.
I could easily choose my grandmothers, one of whom got her 15 minutes of fame being featured in a publication (I am unsure of which one), as representing what was referred to as the “slack set”—womenwho chose to wear slacks to work in the 1930s and ‘40s. She was my paternal grandmother, Frances, who died before I was born, who worked for Rueben H. Donnelly, wore slacks, used her maiden name and did not wear her wedding ring, from what my father told me. I may write about her next year.
I could write about my Great-Aunt Marie, whose biography I am writing based on diaries from the decade of her life from age 15 to 26, spanning the years 1930 to 1941. Marie, who wanted a career, was uncertain about needing a husband, and definitely didn’t want children, She also struggled through the loss of employment and property during the Depression years and had the responsibility of caring for a mother suffering from mental illness. Yet, nevertheless she persisted.
Or I could write about my closest female relative who made her mark on my world (aside from my mother)—my maternal grandmother, Anne, who was a multi-talented homemaker and visual artist. She not only dressed to the nines from clothes she sewed herself, she decorated her home with furniture she upholstered, wallpaper she hung, rugs she hooked, a kitchen she designed, and art she painted herself. As a young girl she taught herself to play piano and attended the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. She taught classes in hooked rug design, and sewed costumes for everyone in local community musical revues. My master’s project was a video of her oral history— it was called “Out of Ithaca.”
But I thought instead I would write about a woman who made an impression on me as a young woman in my 20s who I enjoyed listening to on the WNBC radio in New York. Her name was Jane Dornacker, the traffic reporter who did her reports over the city from a helicopter. According to Wikipedia, she initially became a traffic reporter in the early 1980s on the west coast where she had been working in comedy and improv and co-hosting a television show on channel 26 KTSF two nights a week in 1979. At the time she was doing stand-up comedy and appeared in the film The Right Stuff as Nurse Murch, as well as a couple of other films.
Her role as a morning traffic reporter began at Top 40 radio station KFRC, eventually leading to her NBC job in New York, where she was known as entertaining and fast-talking, as well as her raspy voice and her on-air instructions to daughter Naomi to get up and go to school.
Her personality was infectious, and I found myself looking forward to her reports, even though I was a stay-at-home mom when I was listening with no need to monitor commuter traffic. She was funny, engaging, and energetic, which was invigorating early in my day. In April of 1986, I heard that she had been involved in a helicopter crash, which she survived. Thank God, I thought at the time. What a scary thing to go through on the job. Though she remained grounded for a few months after that, she eventually regained her confidence enough to get back into a helicopter to continue her reports. Only six months after the first crash, however, I was shocked and saddened to hear that she had been reporting the traffic on the air when the helicopter she was riding in began to dive. She frantically yelled to the pilot, “Hit the water, hit the water, hit the water!” After hitting a chain link fence near the Hudson River, it crashed into the water near the Manhattan shore and quickly went down to about 20 feet below the surface. Both the pilot and Jane were trapped in the submerged copter for up to 10 or 15 minutes before rescue divers arrived, though Secret Service agents nearby attempted to rescue them. Both Jane and the pilot were unconscious and not breathing when found. The pilot survived his severe injuries and exposure, but Jane was pronounced dead on her way to St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center.
I remember reading an Associated Press article about Jane the next day, which gave details of her life, and I remember being impressed that this enjoyable reporter had accomplished so much in her 40 years. The article reported her past comedy career, noting she had been named outstanding female comic in San Francisco three years in a row. They also noted that after moving from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1965, she became the nation’s first female mail carrier in 1968. Why was that not bigger news? In the 1970s and ‘80s, in San Francisco, she was a lead singer, keyboardist and songwriter for a “tack” rock group, Leila and the Snakes, which led to her role as backup singer and dancer for a satirical San-Francisco-based rock band known as The Tubes. Other groups she sang in included Jane Door and the Door Knockers and The Final Solution.
What an impressive woman, I thought, as I read about her very accomplished and active life. To have made so many inroads in such a diverse career path was inspiring. To have died so suddenly and so young after surviving a crash and being able to overcome her fears of it happening again—only for it to happen again, this time with such tragic consequences—was a shame.
I think about her from time-to-time and I am still impressed and still saddened. She was truly an adventurer who used her talents to the fullest. She should be celebrated, I often think. So this month, I want to tell her story and celebrate her life.