Frankie Renner, 1897-1985

Frankie Renner, Akron’s first woman licensed pilot, tried to set the women’s world altitude record. She failed because of equipment problems, she argued. But flying was only one part of her life. She went into radio and produced one of the first programs for women on WADC, Akron.

Renner was born in Sugar Creek, Ohio, in 1897; but she lived most of her life in Akron.

Renner was 30 years old when she earned her pilot’s license (#7410). She had paid for her lessons at the Hugh Robbins Flying Service at the Stow Air Field (now the Kent State University Airport) with the small inheritance from her father, a real estate dealer. Renner said she was absolutely “fascinated” by flying and nothing was going to keep her from it — not even the antics of her flying instructor who did everything he could to frighten her.

In 1927, she finally won her license. In 1930, she earned another license (#314), this one signed by aviation pioneer Orville Wright. That same year Renner was a member of the 99s, the International Organization of Women Pilots organized by aviatrix Amelia Earhart and attended its first convention in Chicago.

In 1931, she was ready to set a record – the women’s world altitude record. Renner was positioned for the move. She had connections with the Waco Plane Company, a manufacturer of biplanes. At the time she was the manager of the air field in Stow and salesperson for the Robbins agency, the local distributor of Waco planes.

Waco outfitted a special biplane for her. (Planes at the time had no cockpit; goggles were the only windshield.) Renner gave up her parachute to lighten the load. On March 13, 1931, Renner, dressed in electrically heated flying clothes, boarded her plane and took off. Her plane climbed for 3-1/2 hours. She soared about 6 miles above the earth. Her altimeter froze and stopped registering at 28,000 feet, she remembered. Then her plane “shuddered and behaved queerly,” when the temperature dropped to 30, 40 even 50 degrees below zero, she told the Plain Dealer. Her goggles were frosted over and she couldn’t get them clear. Her lips started bleeding from the extreme cold and low pressure. “I really was frightened, it was so cold, so deathlike, so unreal,” she said. Renner started down, sure that she had broken the record. She landed “breathless and blue.” But the government said she was 3,700 feet short of the record. Renner always argued that she had broken the record but the government-certified equipment had frozen during the flight. Although she promised to try again, Renner never did.

Instead in 1932 she earned her commercial license, becoming Akron’s first female transport pilot, and started taking passengers and cargo across the Midwest. In 1933, her flying career ended when a fire at the Stow airfield destroyed a hangar and the uninsured planes inside.

After that, she looked for another career and she found it in radio. She took a job as an administrative assistant to aviation enthusiast Allen T. Simmons, owner of radio station WADC (now WSLR). Early on, she produced one of the first programs for women in Akron, a 15-minute segment on fashion and homemaking. She stayed with WADC until her retirement.

Renner died in a nursing home in Millersburg, Ohio, in 1985. She was 87.

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

–Kathleen L. Endres

Ruth Alderfer Oenslager, 1892-1992

Ruth Emma Alderfer Oenslager’s contributions to the Akron area can be seen on many different levels. She helped found and became the first president of Junior League in the city; she’s been generally credited with saving Akron’s Loew’s Theater (now the Civic) from destruction; and she donated her 102-acre family farm to the Medina County Park District (now the Alderfer-Oenslager Park). Notwithstanding all those contributions, she preferred her occupational affiliation best – painter.

Born in Katytown, Medina County, on Nov. 12, 1892, she was the daughter of John Melvin and Estella Santee Alderfer. Her father ran a mill in Medina County. Well educated for the day, she attended Oberlin College. She then went on to study still life at the Cleveland School of Fine Arts. She continued to paint throughout her life.

Alderfer never fit neatly into social expectations for women of the day. She went to Columbia to be trained in occupational therapy. When World War I broke out, she went to France as an occupational therapist.

After the war, she returned to Akron. In 1923, she along with Mrs. George Crouse Jr. and Mrs. R.G. Shirk started the Junior League of Akron. The early Junior League appeared to have some sort of association with Blanche Seiberling’s Babies Aid Society which assisted the Mary Day Nursery/Children’s Hospital Women’s Board. Many of the women of the Babies Aid Society along with Alderfer, Crouse and Shirk became the core of the Junior League.

The influence of the Babies Aid Society can be seen in the initial work of the Junior League. The organization was committed to three types of work — with the sick and unfortunate in the hospitals, with the working and foreign girls in the city and with children. By 1930, the Junior League had taken over responsibility of running the Mary Day Nursery, which was a part of the Children’s Hospital organization. All members had to volunteer 75 hours of work each year. Alderfer became the first president.

During the 1920s and 1930s, when Alderfer was especially involved, the Junior League was involved in many activities. In the 1920s, members worked in City Hospital, establishing a patient’s library and making surgical dressings. In the 1930s, the group provided occupational therapy at Goodrich School.

Alderfer also served as one of the founders and an early president of the Women’s Overseas Service League in Akron (Mary Gladwin Unit) and a board member of Goodwill Industries.

In 1939, Alderfer, 47, married 66-year-old George Oenslager, a prominent chemist with Goodrich Tire and Rubber.

Throughout her life, Alderfer Oenslager traveled the world and painted. After her husband died in 1956, she split her time between Akron and the family farm in Sharon Township.

In 1965, she was generally credited with saving the beautiful Loew’s Theater in Akron from the wrecking ball. When campaigners couldn’t raise the money needed to save the theater, she stepped in to make up the difference. Bill Vielhaver, an accountant who participated in the fund drive, remembered that the group needed $22,000 to buy the building and set up the foundation. Oenslager stepped in, held the mortgage and eventually forgave the debt.

In 1975, she donated her 102-acre family farm in Sharon Township to the Medina County Park District. Alderfer-Oenslager Park remains a testament to her generosity.

When Oenslager died in 1992, the Beacon Journalremembered her many contribution to the Akron area.

–Kathleen L. Endres

Mary Elizabeth McGowan, 1896-1980

Mary Elizabeth McGowan was characterized as the “Susan B. Anthony of Summit County politics” by the local Akron newspaper. McGowan shouldn’t be compared with any figure from history. She was her own woman, who made her way in the rough-and-tumble politics of the local courthouse and in the statehouse.

Born in Ohio in 1896, she moved to Akron when she was 14. A Catholic, she was educated at St. Vincent’s schools and went on to the Actual Business College.

For 20 years, she served as a probate court reporter in Summit County. But her heart was in politics – Democratic Party politics.

McGowan won the right to vote along with all the other women in the U.S. in 1920. She was 35 at the time and already a committed Democrat. She soon became a force behind many local and state campaigns.

In 1960, at an age when most people are thinking of retiring, McGowan decided it was her turn to run and she won a seat in the Ohio House for the 42nd District. She was re-elected in 1962. When she was at the statehouse, she served on the welfare committee.

McGowan also drew power from her role as district Democratic committeewoman (from 1938 until her death in 1980). She also was elected Democratic National Committeewoman in 1952.

Although prominent Summit County Democratic politicians referred to her as the “first lady” of the party, her sometimes unpredictable behavior caused problems. In 1972 (at the age of 86), she made a run for a third term in the Ohio House. She won the primary but was handily defeated in the general election.

McGowan kept strong ties to the Irish Catholic community. She served as president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians Ladies Auxiliary and remained active in St. Sebastian Catholic Church.

McGowan is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery. 

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

–Kathleen L. Endres

Sophia Harter, 1887 – 1954

Sophia Harter, progressive thinker and liberal, worked diligently to serve the underprivileged and handicapped in Summit County and Ohio.

Harter, who was born in Wadsworth, Ohio, received her early schooling in Akron and later attended business college there. Her husband George Harter had been mayor of Akron from 1942-1943 and later served in the Ohio Legislature. Because of this, Harter developed an interest in politics and would accompany her blind husband, acting as his guide. As a result, she became as well known as he was and it was no surprise that she announced her intent to run for state legislature.

During her one term in office (1948-1949), Harter used her knowledge of Ohio tax structures to propose a revision in Ohio’s state laws. She also favored a uniform real estate tax and called for the redistricting of Ohio’s congressional districts. Her other interests included low-income public housing, city development and better unemployment compensation.

Harter was a member of the Democratic Women’s Federation, the Women of the Moose and the Eagles Auxiliary. She participated in Catholic Daughters and was a member of the Altar Society of St. Vincent Church in Akron. Because she lost a son in World War II, she was also a WWII Gold Star Mother.

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

–Penny Fox

Della G. Ball, 1878-1962

Della G. Ball was part of a generation of Akron-area Catholic women who helped build that religion’s community and welfare organizations in the city.

She was involved in the National Council of Catholic Women from its beginnings in 1923. She attended its first meeting and then eventually went on to serve as its president. She also belonged to the Ladies’ Catholic Benevolent Association, Our Lady of Peace Study Club and the St. Sebastian Sanctuary Society. In addition, she was also the first grand regent of the Akron Catholic Daughters.

Besides being a member of these organizations, Ball pioneered several other Catholic organizations. She was the founder and president of the Maryknoll Guild and she was a charter member of the Legion of Mary of St. Sebastian.

Ball’s community involvement included being a member of the Historical Society, the Women’s City Club and the Loyal Club. She was also the first president of the East Akron Women’s Club.

Ball was married to Harry B., who was a clerk at the Goodyear Company. They resided at 378 East Buchtel Ave., where Ball lived until she became ill in 1961. At that time she moved to 1845 Tanglewood Dr. to live with her niece, Melvina Becker. Ball died in 1962, at the age of 84, in St. Thomas Hospital after being ill for six months.

Photo courtesy of The University of Akron Archives.

–Janelle Baltputnis

Mary A. Upperman, 1878-1937

When Mary A. Upperman came to Akron, Ohio, in 1916, she was a minister’s wife. But, with the untimely death of her husband, Upperman assumed a new identity, as an entrepreneur. She became perhaps the most successful African-American businesswoman in the city during the Progressive period.

Little is known about Upperman’s early days. She was born in Raleigh, N.C., and was orphaned by the age of 2. She attended the prestigious Scotia Seminary, the rigorous girl’s boarding school in North Carolina that educated the likes of such African-American women leaders as Mary McLeod Bethune, Gertrude Brown and Mary Church Terrell. After graduating at the age of 19, Upperman taught school at Keystone, W.Va.

She and her husband, the Rev. Louis M. Upperman, came to Akron where he became pastor of the Wesley Temple A.M.E. Zion Church. He died in 1917. She stayed in the city and began a new life.

According to the city’s Negro Year Book of 1927, Upperman had the one qualification needed for success, “belief in herself.” She started initially running an employment agency out of her home. By 1920, however, Upperman had diversified. She continued running the employment agency but also ran a thriving grocery and laundry. By 1927, she was the sole owner of the only African American-owned drug store in the city (Globe Drug Store, 103 N. Main St.), even as she continued to run her grocery.

The Depression had some effect on Upperman. In 1931, she ran a confectionary (North End Cut Rate Store, 187 Bluff) and a grocery (189 Bluff) but she had apparently given up her drug store. By 1932, she was concentrating on the grocery business.

Mary A. Upperman died of pneumonia in Akron, on Dec. 7, 1937. She was only 59 years old.

Although she carried on lucrative businesses, Upperman always retained ties to the church that her husband once ministered. She supervised the Sunday school for many years. In 1936, she was a delegate to the general conference of the A.M.E. Zion Church.

She was a member of the board of directors of the Association for Colored Community Work which affiliated with the National Urban League. For the last four years of her life, she also gave domestic science classes for girls.

No known picture exists of Mary Upperman. This advertisment from her drug store courtesy of The University of Akron Archives.

–Kathleen L. Endres

Marion Voris, 1892-1973

Marion Voris came from a family whose name was often associated with the history of Akron. Marion Voris carried on many of the family traditions. She attended Buchtel College (now The University of Akron), just like her mother, Elizabeth Voris. She was a member of the Pan Hellenic Association, like her mother. She became a teacher, like her mother.

Marion Voris was born in Akron in 1893. When Voris graduated from Buchtel College in 1914, she sought employment. The following year, she became a teacher at Central High School and taught there for the next 40 years, retiring in 1955.

She also got involved in the College Club of Akron, an organization of college-educated women in the city. In 1919, she served on the organization’s membership committee. Besides being a place where college-educated women could get together and socialize, the College Club also brought well-known speakers such as poet Alfred Noyes and novelist Baroness Von Suttner to Akron. In addition, Voris served as a charter member of Akron’s Women’s City Club.

Voris was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church. She died in 1974 at the age of 81.

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

–Jennifer Petric

Louise Voris, 1882-1946

Louise Voris converted her long career as a volunteer community activist into a job as the superintendent of the Summit County Children’s Home. When she was offered the position in 1936, she had never worked outside the home for pay. Nonetheless, she said, “I feel that I have spent my entire life preparing for the task I know have” (Beacon Journal, 1946).

She was correct. She was well equipped for the task. Born in Cleveland, Voris had graduated from the exclusive Vassar women’s college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She moved to Akron shortly after graduating and married William S. Voris, a salesman during the 1930s.

She came to Akron at a time when the women’s community was brimming with energy and she quickly got involved. She was a charter member of both the College Club of Akron, an organization that her mother in law helped found, and the Woman’s City Club. Voris served as president of each organization. She was also the president of the Art and History Club. She also served on the board of the Florence Crittenton Rescue League, a home for unwed mothers. Her longest affiliation, however, was with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Akron. She served on its board for 22 years, as its president from 1927-1930 and as the chair of its camp committee that administered Camp YaWaCa on Lake Erie.

In 1936 when Mary E. Boteler suddenly resigned as superintendent of the Summit County Children’s Home, Voris applied. Given Voris’ connections within the women’s community and her family connections, she seemed the natural selection, even though she had no previous professional experience in administration.

Voris came to the job with no real plans. She admitted, “I don’t know in the least what I am going to do there except to follow in Miss Boteler’s capable footsteps” (Beacon Journal, 1936). Voris had no real crises to deal with. The home was well run, clean and well staffed.

The appointment, however, came to pose a problem for the children’s home. In order to keep the job, Voris needed to pass the state Civil Service exam. In 1937, she took that exam and passed.

Voris remained the superintendent until March 1946 when she died of a heart attack.

Photo courtesy of the Beacon Journal.

Kathleen L. Endres

Ella A. Thompson, 1861-1956

At the time of her death in 1956, Ella Thompson was not only one of the oldest members of the High Street Church of Christ but she was also one of its most active members.

Thompson was born in Canal Fulton, Ohio, but lived at 346 Spicer for most of her life. She became a member of the church now called the High Street Christian Church, in 1878 and started teaching a class of girls. In 1901, she was elected president of the Young Ladies Missionary Society (an organization established by Chalista Wheeler) and remained in that position for 33 years. In 1934, she was named president emeritus. Thompson’s influence on the body was so great that the Young Ladies Missionary Society voted in 1916 to change its name to the Ella Thompson Missionary Society.

Thompson was also instrumental to the success of the East Akron Community House. It was begun by the missionary associations of Akron’s Protestant churches as the city’s only settlement house. (East Akron Community House still operates in the city and offers a wide range of community services.) According the High Street Christian Church records, “she [Thompson] contributed generously of her time, talent and means to the work of the East Akron Community House with foreign born immigrants. Her devotion inspired a similar commitment on the part of the society.”

She encouraged members of the church and the women’s missionary society to read about foreign missions. In 1930, she organized a missionary library that became a part of the Valentine Memorial Library, which is still in use in the church today.

Thompson was recognized for her civic activities when the Woman’s City Club held a banquet in her honor on Sept. 16, 1926.

Thompson worked for 50 years at the American Hard Rubber Company. She retired in March 1937.

–Stephanie Devers

Elizabeth Brown Thompson, 1853-1931

Dean Elizabeth Brown Thompson was the first head of the history department and the first dean of women at Buchtel College (now The University of Akron). In addition, she was also active in many community organizations in the city.

Elizabeth Brown was born in Scotland. On Dec. 14, 1853, her family arrived in the United States. They lived in Philadelphia, where she graduated from a girl’s high school and a normal school. She then taught history in Philadelphia until 1878, when she married Charles Thompson, who was once secretary to the Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker. They had one son, Roy. After her husband died, she and her son moved to Akron in 1885. They became members of the First Congregational Church.

Thompson ws a history teacher in Akron high schools and continued in that position for 23 years. In 1908, she resigned that post and left high school teaching, to join the staff of Buchtel College, where she would teach history under popular teacher/administrator O.E. Olin in the philosophy department.

In 1911, The University of Akron gave her an honorary Master’s degree of Arts; at this time she was still an associate professor. In 1914, she was named dean of women at the university. The university also created a history department, putting that in her charge. In 1916, she was promoted to full professor. Thompson served as both dean of women and head of the history department for 17 years, until her death in 1931.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, she had a “colorful career of 45 years teaching in Akron Schools, during which time she taught many of the city’s most successful men and women, and endeared herself to thousands of school and university students.” The Akron Alumnus magazine wrote that this “rarely gifted woman” had instructed more high school and college students than anyone else in the city.

Thompson also impacted the adults of Akron, by becoming active in many civic organizations. Not only was she a leader of the current events lecture course of the Woman’s City Club, but also was a gifted public speaker herself, often lecturing before Akron organizations and clubs. She was a member of the Woman’s City Club, the Woman’s Club League and the Division of Literary Extension in the Department of Applied Education of the College Club.

She was president of the Art and History Club, and had honorary memberships in both the Altrusa Club and the College Club.

Thompson died March 29, 1931, after suffering a stroke. Dr. George F. Zook, president of the university at that time, said the university would miss its long-time faculty member/dean. “Mrs. Thompson was a continual inspiration to students of the university for many years. She was most high[ly] respected among members of the faculty and student body,” he recalled.

Photo courtesy of The University of Akron Archives.

–Stephanie Devers