A bitter wind blew snow against the windows of Charley and Lillian Zabel’s ranch house near Box Elder, South Dakota. A roaring fire kept the occupants cozy warm. It was November 22, 1892, when the Zabel’s welcomed their first and only child, Eleanor (Nellie) Zabel.
Charley “Prad” Zabel, a successful ox breeder was able to provide a nice living for his family. But in 1894, his financial situation could not protect his daughter from a disease that swept through the region.
Nellie developed a high fever. The doctor was summoned. By the time the doctor arrived Nellie was seriously ill. After he examined her, he informed the Zabel’s their daughter had the measles. A few days later, two year old Nellie seemed to be recovering, but another examination revealed she had been left profoundly deaf by the measles.
Charley and Lillian were devastated. Lillian devoted herself to Nellie’s care and early education. Since Nellie could speak when her deafness occurred, every effort was made to keep her language skills progressing while she learned to read lips, as well as learned sign language.
When Nellie was eight, her beloved mother died. Charley moved with his daughter to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Years passed and when Nellie was eighteen she trained for and passed the test to be a typist-stenographer which led to her first job working at a local airfield. This is when her love of flying began.
At the airfield, Nellie met a flight instruction who was impressed with her precision as a typist and with her ability to keep accurate records. Accurate records were vitally important (there were no computers) because airplanes had to have regular maintenance and pilots had to complete reports and follow guidelines. Having a person with the ability to keep track of such things meant Nellie had job security. The flight instructor was the one who first encouraged Nellie to take flying lessons.
Seventeen years later at age 35, Nellie entered aviation school. After 13 lessons she was ready to take her solo flight (that means alone) which is actually an exam on everything you need to know the fly a plane from point “A to point “B” and land it. This was quite an accomplishment for a deaf person. She was the thirteenth pilot to graduate from Sioux Falls Aviation School and South Dakota’s first deaf pilot.
Her proud father bought her an open cockpit Alexander Eagerock 0X-5 bi-plane which she named “Prad” to honor her father. She quickly excelled as a pilot and began barnstorming at air shows, county fairs, races or just giving rides to people who never thought they would ride in an airplane. Nellie became a favorite among the stunt pilots.
Serving as a commercial pilot, Nellie flew airmail until 1944. She was the first and only deaf person to accomplish that feat. Along with Amelia Earhart, Nellie was instrumental in forming South Dakota’s branch of the “99’s”, a pioneering group of 99 female flyers.
Nellie had a major disability that could have negatively shaped her life, but she never let it. People admired her for pursuing her education, and for believing she could do anything she wanted to do.
Along the way, there were many naysayers challenging her abilities, because of her disability. One common complaint was she wouldn’t know if something was wrong with the plane, because she couldn’t hear. Nellie once said, “Even though I can barely hear the roar of the engine, I know instantly if there is a problem—just by the vibrations.”
Seems people forgot when one of our senses is lost, all the others become heightened as if on constant alert—making up for the one that is lost.
Shortly before Nellie’s death in 1991, she was inducted into the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame. Her plane the “Prad” is currently on display at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama.
Along the way, Nellie married Dr. F.V Willhite. Theirs was a long and happy marriage.
Eleanor (Nellie) Zabel Willhite was an inspiration to her peers. Now thanks to her place in history, we can enjoy her story.
I have no idea about Nellie’s faith or religious beliefs, but her story resonated with me. She was obviously a woman of strong character, and she was a loving daughter. She didn’t let trials define who she would become. We can all learn valuable lessons from her.
The opinions expressed by authors may not necessarily reflect the opinion of FaithWriters.com.
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