Sonya Heckman recalls how an advertisement transformed her life.
As an Akron teenager in the 1950s, she loved reading fashion magazines, flipping through the glossy pages and admiring the latest styles. Somewhere near the back of Glamour or Seventeen, an ad caught her eye: It was for the Grace Downs Air Career School, a New York City academy “for girls who like adventure and travel plus a fine salary.”
A job as a stewardess sounded exciting, so she sent an application, filled out forms and mailed her photo.
“I didn’t even tell my mother,” she said.
The former Sonya Suscinski, a little girl with lofty dreams, grew up in a house on Mustill Street in the Little Cuyahoga Valley. A child of divorced parents, she lived with her mother, Mabel Vrabel, but often visited her father, John Suscinski, who lived on Hickory Street.
Sonya attended Findley Elementary, Jennings Junior High and North High School before graduating from Ellet in 1957. She had remarkable poise at a young age — thanks to the Mary Pollack Dance Academy and Paige Palmer School of Charm and Fashion Modeling.
Heckman, 73, remembers modeling fashions and doing demonstrations on Palmer’s popular exercise program on WEWS-TV 5 in Cleveland.
“When I was at Paige Palmer, she more or less took me by the hand,” Heckman said. “She started taking me to the television studio every morning.”
Studying with Pollack, she danced in a trio called the Maryettes, which performed at local clubs and restaurants. After a girl quit, the group became a duo, the Lee Sisters, which danced at nightclubs in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and a monthlong engagement at a resort in the Adirondacks of New York.
In 1958, the Manhattan airline school accepted the Akron girl. Sonya broke the news to her mother, who had saved $3,000 for her to attend the University of Akron.
“All right, this is your choice,” her mother replied. “Take the money and you can go to New York.”
Sonya lived for months in a New York dormitory with dozens of girls. The school had classrooms, a mock passenger cabin and flight simulator.
“You had to study all these different airplanes and codes and procedures,” she said. “There was a lot you had to learn.”
Students took a grueling test and sat for interviews with airline representatives.
“And then you just kept your fingers crossed that one of them would hire you.”
At the end of training, nervous students were ushered into the mock airplane, where airline officials called off the names of the dozen or so women who were hired. Capital Airlines selected Heckman.
“Oh, my God, it was like Miss America,” she said. “Everybody hugged one another.”
Capital flew her to Washington, D.C., for more training — and that became her hub. She lived in an apartment with three stewardesses — they weren’t called flight attendants then — and took a cab every morning to classes in a hangar at National Airport.
“You had to be a certain height, you couldn’t be over a certain weight,” she said. “At that particular time, you couldn’t be married and fly.”
She was fitted for a uniform — olive green in winter and light tan for summer — and flew into the wild blue yonder.
“Most of the people that were on the airplane were men,” she said. “They were businessmen traveling. You didn’t see too many families.”
Airplane cabins were filled with cigarette smoke, thanks in part to the Winston packs that stewardesses distributed. Stewardesses also pushed a cocktail cart down the aisle.
“I was always scared of the champagne because I had to pop the cork,” Heckman said.
One time, labor leader Jimmy Hoffa was on board. He sat there gruffly, throwing back drinks and dropping peanuts all over his seat.
“He wasn’t nice at all to me,” Heckman said. “When he got up to leave, it was a big mess. You might have thought you were at the zoo.”
Heckman flew as far south as New Orleans and as far west as Denver. She enjoyed the camaraderie of the crew.
Danger always lurked in the air, however. Because Capital’s planes didn’t have radar, pilots often ran into foul weather.
Heckman remembers flying on a twin-engine DC-3 to Norfolk, Va., when the sky turned black and the plane began to pitch all over the place.
“It got so terrible, I unstrapped myself from my seat belt and I ran up to the cockpit, I opened the door and I burst in,” she recalled. “I said ‘Guys, what’s going on?’ They said we’re in a hurricane.”
When one of the engines stalled, a pilot instructed Heckman to tell the 30 passengers to get out their pillows and assume crash positions. People started to cry and scream.
“I’m sitting there and I’m saying my prayers,” she said. “I’m making the sign of the cross.”
Suddenly, everything became calm. The engine restarted. The sun came back out. The plane landed 10 minutes later.
Heckman was lucky that day. Sadly, other flights ended in tragedy for co-workers. “In the years that I flew, I lost quite a few friends through crashes,” she said.
After United Airlines bought Capital in 1961, Heckman retired her wings. She was planning to marry airline captain Harvey Heckman.
She stayed in the business, donning a blue uniform and selling travel insurance from a counter at National Airport. That led to one of the best experiences of her life.
One day in 1962, her manager took her aside and told her to report to the Nov. 17 dedication at nearby Dulles International Airport. He instructed her to wear white gloves because she was going to meet President John F. Kennedy.
“So then my anxiety attack started,” she said. “Is my uniform pressed and ready? Do my shoes look decent? Where in the world are my white gloves?”
She remembers being nervous as she drove to Dulles. She stood in the receiving line and watched as Kennedy moved through the crowd. She kept her composure, recalling her training from Paige Palmer.
The president stopped, shook her gloved hand and spoke to her. A photographer captured the moment.
“Being face to face with him was simply awesome,” Heckman said. “He was so good-looking and smiling at me. I mean, I’m looking straight in the eyes at him. I felt like I was going to faint.”
She remembers everything about that moment — except for the conversation itself.
“I couldn’t believe the president was speaking to me,” she said. “I spoke back. I don’t know what I said.”
Later that evening, she got another surprise when her picture with Kennedy appeared on the national news.
“I was just in total shock to see it,” she said.
Heckman left the insurance business after she and her husband, Harvey, welcomed a daughter, Laura.
Sonya Heckman wasn’t done meeting VIPs, though. She returned to modeling in the 1960s and continued into the 1980s, working for stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor. The work brought her in contact with such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, Vidal Sassoon, Ethel Kennedy and Hollywood actress Arlene Dahl.
It was an interesting career, and Heckman is forever grateful to that 1950s advertisement “for girls who like adventure and travel.” She truly reached her destination.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.