An Invincible Spirit

A crew member helps Lina climb aboard the Curtiss “Jenny.”

“You might be interested in seeing this,” Lina said, handing me a 1920s sepia-toned postcard she’d been using as a bookmark. A pleasant lady in her 70s, with curly gray hair and large round glasses, Lina Robertson had been my neighbor for five years or so. The card’s photo showed a girl, no more than 18 or 19, smiling demurely and standing next to a classic biplane – a “flying machine.” Her head cocked slightly, she was dressed in a belted jumpsuit topped with a leather flier’s helmet and goggles. The vintage card had an inscription in the lower left corner:

 

Irene DeVere

World’s Greatest Aviatrix and 

Parachute Jumper

 

I stared, said nothing for a moment, and must have looked confused. “That’s me,” she said with a chuckle.

“What … that’s you?” I asked, still confused. The elderly Lina I knew and the girl in the jumpsuit … it didn’t quite register. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of my story … let’s take a step back.

With our young children, my wife and I moved to a new home in 1976. It was a great location, a street away from my parents and much closer to my work. Shortly afterward, I met Lina and her husband, Al. Our backyards adjoined and Lina insisted that we cut through her yard when visiting my folks who lived directly across from her home. “It will be a much easier and safer walk-through with the kids,” she suggested.

I learned quickly that when Lina suggested it was wise to listen. She could comfortably take command of a conversation, not with undue authority but with a combination of assurance, knowledge and experience. Now retired, both Lina and Al had been respected accountants. In an earlier time when there were few “career women,” Lina had been a bit of a pioneer. One photograph shows her sitting confidently at her accounting firm’s board meeting, the only lady present at the table. Both Lina and Al had many retirement interests: music (Al played the banjo and organ), coin and antique collecting, and considerable civic and charity work.

Lina Mae Freese was born in 1903 in Elmira and raised by her grandmother on a farm in nearby Big Flats. Her mother had died when she was very young and her father was never present as she grew. Perhaps the rugged and demanding farm life established a strong will in Lina, a passion to seek adventure. At any rate, determined and unafraid, at age 18 she signed on with a promoter under the name “Irene DeVere.” Always resolute, in a short time she managed to acquire the skills of a capable parachutist, wing walker and pilot.

Post World War I became the age of barnstorming – stunt flyers and daredevils performing in a series of “flying circuses.” Surplus Curtiss JN-4 aircraft (“Jennys”), available after the war at very reasonable prices from the Curtiss Aeroplane Company in nearby Hammondsport, encouraged the post-war fad and its air of excitement. Lina (or Irene) was frequently advertised even more colorfully as “Daring Dolly DeVere” as she prepared, practiced, and performed at county fairs, local events, and private affairs from 1921 through 1924.

Petite at only 95 pounds, she fearlessly flew, wing walked and parachuted as her troop traveled throughout northern Pennsylvania, New York’s Southern Tier, and the surrounding Finger Lakes Region. In July of 1921, she scribbled a simple, direct message on a postcard sent to relatives in Florida:

 

Dear Auntie & Uncle,

I am jumping from an aeroplane. I jumped 2,600 feet yesterday.

– Lina

 

The postcard’s note illustrates how Lina took her barnstorming experiences in stride, never boasting of her unusual exploits but instead speaking of them almost matter-of-factly.

In the years following my discovery of Lina’s escapades, I could never draw her into a detailed conversation about those extraordinary days. She would laugh and talk about it in an off-handed way, then inevitably turn our chats back to topics she found of more interest – her work with the Girl Scouts, gardening, a camp the Robertsons had once owned on Skaneateles Lake, their winter place in Florida, my children, and the like. As intriguing as her adventures of the past might have been to others, those bygone days never defined Lina. Others close to her felt the same. Both Mary Lou Thompson and Casey Bobowski had become acquainted with Lina long before the stories of her barnstorming days ever surfaced.

Mary Lou was a young neighbor when the Robertsons owned their camp on Skaneateles Lake from the late ‘30s until the early ‘50s, a period that Lina once called “the best 15 years of my life.” Mary Lou remembers her as a woman of definite opinions who strolled about in a bathing suit, always with a flower in her hair. “She was like no woman I had ever met at that point in my life,” says Mary Lou. “To a young girl, she was a fascinating character.”

Now a Skaneateles optometrist, Dr. Casey Bobowski has early memories of Lina taking him under her wing at age 10 or 11. Casey quickly acquired a work ethic doing paid odd jobs for his neighbor, both outside (mowing and gardening) and inside (washing and polishing floors). With Lina leading the way, Casey became immersed in some of the same hobbies that had so interested her for years. “I admired Lina for her strong personality and accomplishments,” says Casey. “She became a lifelong friend.”

Lina Mae Robertson died in 2001 at the age of 98. Both she and her husband rest in a rural cemetery close to Al’s boyhood homestead in New Hope, a rural hamlet situated on the high ground between Skaneateles and Owasco Lakes.

Lina sold her home in 1988 and moved permanently to Florida where she lived out her remaining years. “Here’s a small gift – a book you might like to keep,” she said to me, shortly before the move. It was a worn copy of “WE” authored by Charles Lindbergh. Published in 1927, the best-selling book detailed the famed aviator’s personal account of his legendary transatlantic flight. Coincidentally, Lindbergh’s early flying experience included extensive barnstorming … much of it in a Curtiss “Jenny.”

 


by James P. Hughes