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Fountain City Heroine Memorialized with Bridge Naming 
Frances Housley
Mary Frances "Frankie" Housley

Through the mugginess of an East Tennessee mid-July morning, John Housley III stoically stood in front of the bridge on Holbrook Drive in Fountain City. His face reddened and tears welled in his eyes as 4th District City Councilman Nick Della Volpe read a proclamation in Mayor Madeline Rogero’s stead.

The proclamation memorialized the renaming of the bridge to the “Mary Frances Housley Memorial Bridge.” Frances “Frankie” Housley was the aunt John Housley III never had the opportunity to meet because of her 1951 death in a courageous effort to save a baby from a burning plane. Serving as a flight attendant for National Airlines, she had saved ten passengers in the Philadelphia airport crash moments beforehand.

After extinguishing the flames, rescuers found Frankie’s body with the four-month-old baby girl clutched in her arms.

New York Times Story

Today, John Housley III is her closest living relative and traveled from Florida to visit the bridge when he learned that the City of Knoxville was naming it after his father’s sister.

“This means a lot,” said Mr. Housley at the proclamation reading, comparing his late aunt to military and emergency heroes who fearlessly stay at their stations to save the lives of others.

Carnegie Medal

Sacrificing her life at only at 24 years old, Frankie had been declared in an article of “Reader’s Digest” as “the Bravest Woman in America.” She was also posthumously awarded the Carnegie Medal by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. Frankie’s heroism was even featured in a September 1951 #68 issue of a comic book series called “New Heroics Comics.”

New Heroics Comics

She was a Class of 1944 Central High School graduate and was a Sigma Kappa sorority member at the University of Tennessee.  

Sigma Kappa
Frankie Housley inducted into Sigma Kappa at the University of Tennessee

And yet today, few Knoxvillians have been aware of the heroic story of Frankie Housley. Now that the bridge on Holbrook Drive has been named in her honor, her story is slowly coming to the surface on the local scene.

"After discovering Mary Frances Housley's heroic and inspiring story in the Central High School Heritage Room, I was inspired to suggest naming the bridge on Holbrook Drive in her honor,” said Chris Hammond, a teacher at Central High School who worked with his students to research Frankie Housley’s story and submit the application to the City to rename the bridge. Gordon Sisk, previously a teacher at Central High, also worked with Hammond on the research.

Bridge Proclamation Reading
Left to right: John Housley III, Gordon Sisk, Chris Hammond, and Councilman Nick Della Volpe

The proclamation reading on Thursday was a surreal moment, both for those who knew Frankie Housley’s story well, and for those who had just learned it, given that Frankie had likely walked a nearby route past the bridge on her way to Central High School (now Gresham Middle School) as a young girl.

Young Frankie Housley
A young Frankie Housley

“I felt this bridge was appropriate because it’s so close to two schools in the community and children of the area will pass a constant reminder of this brave Fountain City native,” said Hammond.

After divorcing her husband, Harry O’Massengill, Frankie moved to Jacksonville where she became a stewardess for National Airlines. She was only on the job for five months and engaged when the plane crash occurred.

National Airlines flight no. 83 crashed when landing at a scheduled stop in Philadelphia and the plane slid off of the runway into a ditch after hitting ice. Gas escaping the ruptured fuel tanks ignited, and resulted in violent flames.

According to passenger eye-witness accounts recorded in news stories at the time of the crash, Frankie pried the emergency door open and began ushering passengers off, maintaining a calm composure throughout the ordeal. Some of the passengers hesitated at making the eight-foot jump from the emergency hatch, and Frankie was said to have gently pushed several out in order to save their lives.

There were five passengers in the plane who were afraid to make the jump and retreated back into the plane. After securing ten passengers, Frankie went back into the plane herself for a four-month-old baby girl, Brenda Joyce Smith. Those seven, including Frankie and the baby, wouldn’t make it out of the plane.

Immediately following the proclamation reading at the Mary Frances Housley Bridge on Thursday, Hammond joined John Housley III in visiting Frankie’s gravesite in Lynnhurst Cemetery. There, they installed on her tombstone a Carnegie medallion (resembling the Carnegie Medal that the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission had presented Frankie’s parents following her death).

At the event, someone suggested that John Housley III obtain the phone number of Hammond, the Central High School teacher who had applied for the bridge naming.

“Oh, I’ve already got him on speed dial! We’re keeping in touch!” Housley responded.

Hammond has shared that he hopes to continue helping Knoxville remember Frankie Housley’s courageous sacrifice, mentioning a desire to have a statue erected of Frankie.

Recently, Hammond has discovered that a large oil painting called the “Madonna of the Skies,” by Ivan Stoppe, was painted depicting Frankie holding baby Brenda Smith as a plane burns behind her.

The painting was on display in a children’s hospital wing in Jacksonville, Florida, until the hospital closed. Hammond is in the process of attempting to track the painting down. If located, Hammond hopes to find a way to secure a display location for the painting in Knoxville.

Until then, Hammond said he will continue to find ways to help Knoxville remember Frankie Housley, the Knoxville native dubbed “the Bravest Woman in America.”

To view an online Facebook photo album of Frankie Housley and related articles collected and posted by Chris Hammond, click HERE.

Posted by On 13 July, 2017 at 6:34 PM