‘The agony and the rainbow of hope’ — Amelia Earhart’s mom and the girl in NC

Helen Tucker, left, and Amy Earhart
Helen Tucker, left, and Amy Earhart Heidi Thomsen; The Associated Press

Editor’s note: This story, written 20 years ago this month, is about correspondence between Amelia Earhart’s mother and Helen Tucker of Raleigh for four years during and after World War II. It was published in The N&O on July 24, 1997, on Earhart’s 100th birthday and as the 60th anniversary of her disappearance approached.

A much-anticipated documentary on the Earhart mystery — an examination of evidence that she actually survived her around-the-world flight in 1937 — will premiere Sunday night. “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence” will air at 9 p.m. on The History Channel.

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Ambassador Apts

Union and Bancroft Way

Berkeley, California

August 7, 1943

Dear Child,

I hope you do not mind being called child, especially when there is a dear before it. It is such an easy word for mothers to use. ...

No, Helen Tucker didn’t mind. Amelia Earhart’s mother could have called her just about anything and given no offense.

Just out of Louisburg High School, Helen had been taken by a whim. “All through high school I had wanted to fly and, I guess, be another Amelia Earhart,” Helen recalls, “and there was an article in the newspaper about her mother, and it gave an address.”

So Helen wrote to Amy Otis Earhart 54 years ago today, on what would have been Amelia’s 46th birthday — July 24, 1943. It had been six years since Amelia vanished over the Pacific, where the war against Japan was now raging.

To Helen’s delight, she heard back.

... I live alone in an apartment from whose windows I watch the many planes flying over the Golden Gate, where she so often flew herself, and so long as I live I shall hope some day to see her flying in there again. ...

“I was terribly excited when I got that first letter,” says Helen, who rediscovered, in a box in her Raleigh home this summer, the 17 letters she received from Amy Earhart. “I admired Amelia tremendously, and I think, at that time, there was still hope that Amelia was alive.

“Perhaps I thought her mom might have known something that had not been made public.”

She didn’t. But Amy Earhart did know something about hope, and despair, and aspirations. And for four years she shared it with a young woman 3,000 miles away, whom she would never see.

October 5, 1943

My dear Miss Tucker,

I beg your pardon for not writing you before, and even this will have to be only a note. ... I have had several hundred extra letters added to my usual heavy mail lately, aside from people who drop in unexpectedly from everywhere to ask of my beloved daughter. ...

helen tucker letters
Letters sent to Helen Tucker Beckwith in the 1940s from Amelia Earhart’s mother. Heidi Thomsen

I have always regarded the Navy’s report of her crashing into the sea as an almost impossible occurrence, and knowing so well her skill and foresight, as well as the calmness and quick action with which she met emergencies, I have felt she came down on land and unharmed. ...

It has been such a torture for all of us who know and love her that I try not to think of it by keeping my mind and hands fully occupied, and only write of some of it when I feel I must, but the agony and the rainbow of hope cannot be lost or forgotten until we know. Out of this war may come the knowledge. God grant it for one can face what one must and let imagination go. ...

“When Amelia disappeared I was a very young child,” Helen recalls, “but her disappearance affected me. As far as I can remember I didn’t know anything about her at the time, but my family was at the beach at the time she disappeared, and I remember getting up every morning and rushing to get a newspaper and asking somebody to please tell me if they had found her.”

Six and a half years later, the world again awaited daily news from the Pacific as the war droned on.

I think that when I first started writing to her, there was still a glimmer of hope. In the four years, just letter by letter I could see the hope diminishing.

Helen Tucker

January 16, 1944

My Dear Helen Tucker,

... I still have my contact with youth, especially the Aviation and nurses leaving for service in those islands which one never forgets. So many go expecting to learn something of what happened. ...

I dare not let myself dwell too much on the chance of having her safely home again or that alternative of going on alone to the end, so as nearly as I can, I go quietly and courageously on my way, leaving the outcome to God. ...

“I think she kept hearing from all the servicemen who were in that area, and I think a lot of their letters to her gave her hope,” says Helen, who shared that hope.

“For years, I kept expecting them to find her.”

Indeed, as U.S. military forces island-hopped their way toward Japan in the last two years of World War II, Americans encountered many supposed clues to the Earhart mystery. Natives’ stories. Photographs of Amelia, reportedly with Japanese soldiers. Even a scrapbook. Rumors gained currency that she had survived and was in Japanese custody.

Whenever Helen read such a report in a newspaper, she clipped it and sent it to Amy Earhart.

February 4, 1944

My Dear Helen Tucker,

Thank you so much for the clipping, dear child, for it helps a great deal as information comes in from different parts of the country. ... It is too bad that both the Army and Navy have so thoroughly drilled into them the “Don’t Talk” order that even the higher ranking officers, whose information to those vitally interested, would give the relief of certainty, one way or another, are under its spell. ...

“I think Mrs. Earhart absolutely doted on Amelia and thought everything she did was perfect,” Helen says, reflecting on Amy’s frequent boasts about her daughter’s skill in the cockpit. One letter described how Amelia could detect any problem with an engine just by listening to it.

July 23, 1944

My Dear Helen Tucker,

I had hoped to have this in your morning’s mail on the 24th but couldn’t get it written because of unexpected people and happenings that dropped into my schedule, and disrupted not only plans but the old lady whose clock work needs rewinding. ...

Letters and callers and flowers have been coming in, too, for Amelia’s birthday tomorrow, so my room is filled with them. I have the whole top of my desk covered with roses and sweet honey suckle and flowers she especially loved where the painting I have of her may look down from its frame and smile at them. Like you, I look up at her often and smile back. ...

You wrote of carrying her picture with you and talking to it, which was the way Amelia did with her Grandmother’s picture when she was a little girl. She was my mother’s namesake and they were devoted to each other as long as Mother lived. Nearly always her birthdays were spent at the old home, and it was made a gala affair, from the raising of the great flag, which flew all day with the gifts coming next, and the midday meal served at the table set up under the great old trees in the big garden, with little silk flags at every place. ...

Helen, in a cabinet in her downstairs den, still has the portrait of Amelia that so inspired her then. “It was the cover of, I think, a Woman’s Home Companion magazine back in the early ’40s,” she says. “I kept it in my bedroom.”

September 8, 1944

Dear Child,

Please pardon my delay in replying to your letter, but so many things have kept me unusually busy, including a hard fall on a trash covered walk a short distance from the Women’s City Club where I had been with some of my friends. ... I certainly looked as if I had been to one of those drinking parties some people enjoy. ...

“She had a delightful sense of humor, “ says Helen, who still gets a hearty laugh from Amy’s remark about how Helen would have to give up her dream of flying because of her eyesight, and focus on writing instead. “It seems to me journalism is decidedly hard on the eyes,” Amy wrote, “though the consequences of not seeing clearly in that field are far less serious than a flyer’s would be.”

October 5, 1944

... Please do not think for a moment I mind your questions or writing me about the aviation matters which bother you, for I live and dream aviation, and began clipping all sorts of aviation items long ago, that I might have them ready for my beloved daughter when she came home, to help her catch up quickly with what had been done while she was away. ...

I think with your mother about your college degree, it will all help in the end and the better trained mind can do a better job. ... Many women drift into matrimony who should never have tried it, and because they lack training become dependents and are unhappy misfits all their lives. ... It hasn’t always been so, and isn’t altogether so yet, for there have been and still are some of the real marriages where the man and woman stand on the same level, share equal responsibilities for the family life with its joys and sorrows and are really one. Nothing can be richer, finer or more worth while as I know for I had thirty years of it, but I advocate for every girl training along some line so she has something she can do to support herself if it becomes necessary. When I see an intelligent young woman “hitching her wagon to the stars” I cannot help being interested. ...

Helen didn’t know it at the time, but Amy’s advice was born of hard experience. She had indeed had 30 years of marriage, to a husband, Edwin, who was loving, devoted — and a struggling alcoholic. They were divorced in 1924, and Amy’s inheritance from her wealthy father soon was gone, too. When Amelia disappeared, Amy had been living off a monthly allowance from her celebrated daughter.

As Amy took more interest in Helen’s plans to write for a living, Helen sent her poems she had written, some of them about Amelia.

July 12, 1945

My Dear Helen Tucker,

Thank you very much for your note, and the lovely little poem which touched me very much. I so often look up at her picture hanging above my desk, and ask her questions too. ... Is she Amy to you because of its derivation, or Amy means both in Latin and French “beloved,” or did you hear her called Amy when you were very young — she was called and even written to as Amy every once in a while, which always made her laugh. She said because I brought her into the world at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday instead of waiting a half hour longer, and giving her the glamour of a Sunday’s child, Amelia fitted her much better, and if you have forgotten your youthful rhymes — “a Saturday child must work for his living” — which does jibe with the derivation of Amelia — “busy, industrious.” We had many a laugh over my making her work for her living. ...

“I think she was genuinely interested in my writing, because she would send me poems that she thought expressed the same ideas as mine,” Helen says. “And she kept asking me to please let her know how I was progressing or what I was making of my life.”

November 29, 1945

My Dear Helen,

... You never bore me, dear child. I have known so many young people, and like to keep in touch with them always, for it is one of the things I think Amelia would want me to do and you know you really keep us from becoming old fossils. ...

It seemed Amy now spoke of her daughter only in the past tense, or conditionally. The war had been over for three months, and there was still no word from Japanese POW camps, or anywhere else.

“I think that when I first started writing to her, there was still a glimmer of hope,” Helen says.

“In the four years, just letter by letter I could see the hope diminishing.”

helen tucker young
Helen Tucker Beckwith as a girl in the 1940s when she wrote Amelia Earhart’s mom. Heidi Thomsen

December 25, 1945

My Dear Helen Tucker,

I find myself finishing my list of Christmas letters on Christmas night...

I have had a lovely Christmas with my friends in spite of the weather, but often wish I could write with both hands at the same time, for Time is one who holds all the winning cards in the end, and the last two years has so outrun me that at times I barely catch sight of his coattails as we dash around corners. And there seem to be so many corners lately.

Twilight now seemed to imbue all of Amy’s letters.

August 4, 1946

My Dear Helen,

I want you to know Amelia had a beautiful birthday in spite of the nine long years of silence, a room filled with beautiful flowers, and many notes and cards and letters on my desk, and many who didn’t write I knew were thinking of her. It is so lovely to think of those who will never forget her, and especially of those of you who have loved and admired her from their early years.

“I guess there always was something special about her birthday,” Helen says.

No one who hasn’t been through it can know the alternating hope and fear of a mother’s heart over the terrible uncertainty concerning her dearly loved and devoted daughter. I may never know in this world.

Amy Earhart

February 26, 1947

My Dear Helen Tucker,

I have not intended to neglect you, but haven’t been so well as usual, and now am very busy packing my household things, preparatory to leaving Berkeley for an indefinite stay. I hope to turn over the apartment to the young couple taking it, personal friends, about March 4th and soon after, when my household things are on their way, expect to follow them myself to my younger daughter’s home in West Medford, Massachusetts.

I haven’t time to write more now but promise you a good long letter from there. ... I shall be quite interested in everything you do, and in what you make of yourself.

My love to you dear child.

With that, as far as Helen was concerned, Amy vanished, as mysteriously as Amelia had 10 years earlier. She never wrote again.

Helen spent little time wondering what had happened to Amy. She was too busy hitching that wagon to the stars. Graduating from Wake Forest College, she embarked on a career in newspapers and radio and wrote 18 novels. Since 1971, she has been married to William Beckwith, a former administrator of the state art museum.

And Amy faded into the past. “She said she was sick, and I guess I assumed she had died,” Helen says, “and never looked into it.”

The letters stayed tucked away for 50 years, until the media attention this year to the 60th anniversary of Amelia’s final flight sent Helen to that box of mementoes. Deciphering that gentle script again was a labor of love — this time not as a teenager, but after a half century earning a vision and wisdom that would befit the woman who penned it.

helen tucker
Helen Tucker Beckwith holds a portrait of Amelia Earhart cut from a magazine and letter she received from Amelia Earhart's mother in the 1940s. Heidi Thomsen

“To me she was just Amelia Earhart’s mother at that time, “ Helen says. “But on re-reading the letters, I think she was a very amazing person herself. Her ideas, the way she expressed herself, her knowledge of so many different subjects.

“She was old-fashioned only in her manners. Which I think is a good thing. Her ideas all seemed to be very modern. She didn’t just sit back and think about what happened yesterday. Even at a time in her life when she could have, she didn’t.”

Helen is especially touched by a line in one of the letters:

No one who hasn’t been through it can know the alternating hope and fear of a mother’s heart over the terrible uncertainty concerning her dearly loved and devoted daughter. I may never know in this world.

“As it turns out, she didn’t,” Helen says.

Editor’s note: Amy Earhart, after her last letter to Helen, actually waited another 15 years for Amelia to come home. She died in West Medford in 1962 at age 95.

Postscript: Helen Tucker Beckwith died on Nov. 10, 2014.

Frederick: 919-829-8956. On Twitter: @Eric_Frederick