A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum…..

With a tip of the hat to Stephen Sondheim for use of his title, a funny thing really did happen on the way to the Forum—Woman’s Forum, that is. A few weeks ago, my longtime friend Ginger Beisch, now President of the Senior Junior Forum, called to invite me to the Woman’s Forum membership celebration dinner and before I could answer, she added, “….as our speaker for the evening.” That sealed the deal for me. Little did she know that I have a boatload of memories related to that venerable venue. So in addition to my own memories, the reminiscences of 83 years of Woman’s Forum history was very compelling.

The dinner was great and the musical entertainment could not have been better. If you haven’t heard this trio of Andrews Sisters Sound-Alikes, you have missed a treat. Shelby Waller, Keven Robertson and Debi Walters made beautiful music.

For a long time, there have been whispers of a ghostly presence in the building, appearing to staff or guests in quiet times. One tale is that it is the spirit of a former Forum president who didn’t want to give up her treasured position. Another is that it is the spirit of a member who instructed her family to spread her ashes around the property. All these stories contributed to my “If Walls Could Talk” presentation.

I happily shared my personal memories of times past when as a singer, I was invited by the formidable Nita Aiken to sing for luncheons or dinner entertainment. What a thrill that was for a small-town girl to perform from the stage of the Woman’s Forum. Soon Dr. Aiken realized that our entire family was a “Sound of Music” prototype. With mom Agnes Milford on piano, Dad R.C. singing harmony, sister Julie (now Julie King of Fort Worth) hitting the high notes in her soaring soprano, brother Cliff singing harmony (also a piano/organ virtuoso), sister Kim on alto and I singing melody, we sang for “An Evening with the Musical Milfords”—wow, ancient history now. Suffice to say that we had many good times as guests in the fabulous Forum.

As I delved deeper into the history of the Forum and the guests who had appeared there since the 1927 opening, it got curiouser and curiouser. And since “curiosity” is my mantra, I went to work. Among the famous guests to grace the Forum were the following: Will Rogers in 1933; J. Frank Dobie in 1934; Cornelia Otis Skinner, actress, in 1938; Rubinoff and his violin in 1940; Elsa Maxwell in 1950; Meredith Wilson, composer of “The Music Man” in 1955; Ogden Nash, “The Purple Cow” poet in 1958; Will Rogers, Jr. in 1959. But it was another guest whose listed appearance caught my eye: Amelia Earhart in 1936.

Amelia Earhart right here in our part of the country—in the Woman’s Forum in 1936, the year before she disappeared on her attempt to go around the world in her Lockheed Electra. I am not an aviation aficionado by any stretch. However, just the thought of Earhart stopping in Wichita Falls certainly piqued my interest. Adding to my curiosity was the fact that we, too, had a trailblazing aviatrix in our area: Jimmie Hudson Kolp who lived in Electra and flew out of her own airport there. Both women were early members of the Ninety Nines, the organization for women in flight. Jimmie Kolp was the first woman in Wichita Falls, second woman in Texas and the 37th woman in the United States to earn her pilot license. Their ages and years of licensure were very close making it plausible that there must have been a connection.

My affinity for Jimmie Kolp was no doubt influenced by the fact that her mother, Mrs. W. A. Gault, lived across the street from my family when I was in high school in Electra.
That sweet little woman could never understand why Jimmie would want to get in that plane and fly. Regardless, she was her daughter’s most stalwart supporter…even when her daughter eloped to marry Col.C.F. Kolp who, incidentally, is said to have presented Jimmie with a Rolls Royce when she married him at 16 and later with an airplane and her own airport! These things stick in your memory even after all these years. Mrs. Kolp remained a family friend to her death in 1970. Oddly enough, she died at Love Field in Dallas while preparing to come home from a state aviation committee meeting in Austin. My sister Julie sang for her funeral and my brother played the organ for the service. Memories, memories.

Perhaps you can now better understand my curiosity about Earhart and her visit to Wichita Falls in January of 1936. Why was she here? Did she know Jimmie Kolp?
Did she fly in to Wichita Falls? Did she present a lecture at the Forum? At this time in her life, Earhart was a lecturer at Purdue University in addition to her aviation. She was hired by Purdue to speak to young women about the career opportunities open to them—not only in the world of aviation but also in the earthbound professions. To say she was a forerunner of the equal rights for women movement is without a doubt.

But back to my query: who invited Earhart to Wichita Falls? How long did she stay? Was there newspaper coverage of her visit? Prior to my “If Walls Could Talk” presentation, I enlisted Ms. Beisch’s help to try and track down some of this information.
We explored all the usual avenues but for one reason or another, the information was not forthcoming. Then Ms. Beisch went upstairs at the Forum (where the ghostly spirit is said to waft) to go through Forum records. Her payoff was to find the guest book for January 24, 1936 neatly signed by none other than Amelia Earhart! However, not another word was on the page. Foiled again!

Those who were at the forum last week for the celebration dinner have heard this tale of woe. Several of them have taken up my challenge to contact people in the aviation community who may have some information about this mystery trip. This little piece of history may not be greatly significant to the world but it contributes to our north Texas history and ties us to a fascinating time. And the clock is running as to finding the answers to the questions from someone who really knows. The walls are not talking to us about Amelia; I welcome your help in unraveling the mystery.

Carolyn Milford Gilbert
September 27, 2010