Source: Raleigh News & Observer
By Bruce Siceloff

At 23, Peggy Turley was one of the older recruits who signed up in 1962 to work as stewardesses for American Airlines. Most of the other women in her group were 20 or younger, but Turley had had a few years of college.

She thought a job as a military nurse would be her life’s work eventually, but first she would try a few years in the sky. It was a job for young women, and not something anybody thought of as a career.

“You had to leave at age 32,” Turley said Tuesday. “You couldn’t be married. Couldn’t have children. There were weight requirements.”

The flight attendant’s profession has changed a lot since then, and Turley has managed to make it a career after all. The age limit and other restrictions were done away with by the early 1970s.

After starting out on the West Coast, Turley decided to give Raleigh-Durham International Airport a try and moved here — a single parent — with her 12-year-old son, Scott, in 1987. Now she makes five round-trips each month on American’s flight from RDU to London Heathrow, heading a crew of nine attendants.

Turley was the honoree Tuesday afternoon at a sheet-cake-and-snapshots airport ceremony marking 50 years with American, including 25 at RDU.

Beaming in her perfect gray coif, she tried to hold still while her boss, Tonya Beth Walker-Smith, attached a gold twin-wings American pin, adorned with five diamonds, to her black uniform jacket.

“Now don’t touch my union pin,” Turley laughed. She served for years as local chairman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, and is now vice chairman.

Then she cut a cake decorated with a photo from the 1970s, in which she looked like a Swedish movie star. “You like those eyelashes?” she cracked. “They certainly weren’t mine.”

The photo was taken in Okinawa during a stint that was one of the most memorable parts of Turley’s aerial career. For two years she flew military charters that carried fresh American troops to the war in Vietnam, returning with planes full of veterans.

“Just talking to the guys and a few women, listening to their stories and then seeing them come back again, our hearts went out to them,” Turley said. “It was rewarding because we were able to bring them back home.”

And, at times, it was glamorous work. One of her stewardess friends in the 1960s was Shirley Adams, who went off on a trip with actor Henry Fonda one weekend and came back wearing a long mink coat. She retired after turning 32 and became Fonda’s wife.

“We always had to wear our hats and white gloves on the plane, and our high heels when we carried our suitcases — they didn’t have wheels — through the airport.

“In those days you took names on a seating chart for the passengers in coach. The whole purpose was to know their names so you could go talk to them, play cards with them. That was really important in those days,” Turley said.

Now she enjoys a different kind of intimacy with her work at RDU. She is one of 82 men and women based here at American’s smallest flight attendants base — compared to crews of more than 3,000 based at Miami and at Dallas-Fort Worth.

And with the Heathrow flight she has lots of regular customers.

“So many of them are repeat passengers, people who work at (GlaxoSmithKline) and SAS,” Turley said.”We know many of them by name, and what they drink and what they like to eat. The flying has been so pleasant and the flight attendants are just wonderful. They keep me young.”

But it no longer is a young woman’s profession. All of the flight attendants based at RDU, about 15 percent of them men, have worked at least 20 years for American. Tuesday’s Heathrow flight was the last one for attendant Deborah Schwarz, who is retiring in July after 40 years with the airline.

At 73, Turley isn’t ready to quit. She likes her passengers and her co-workers, and as union rep she has an extra interest in how things will work out in the new era that began with American’s bankruptcy filing in 2011.

“United Airlines has a male flight attendant who’s been flying 63 years, not that I want to beat him,” Turley said. “But I think I have a few years to decide.”

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