My Grandpa, Leo Gotcher, was a quiet man with a great sense of adventure. One of the few stories he ever told was about how he met Amelia Earhart when we was young. Growing up we always thought this was fascinating and never questioned the validity of his story. As an adult family researcher though, I had a lot of questions about this story. We all knew that grandpa was a pilot, in fact he owned several airplanes over the course of his life. But for the timing to match up he would have been a teenager and during his teen years he lived in York, Nebraska; a very small town, which begs the question how would he have met Ms. Earhart.
Leo Gotcher was born on November 2, 1917, in Omaha, Nebraska. He had four older brothers and then a younger sister. His father, Charles, died in a car wreck on August 16, 1925 when Leo was only seven. His mother, Katherine, remarried quickly and had three more boys with John Dillon, her second husband. All nine children lived with the Dillons in York County Nebraska until John Dillon died of cancer in 1936.
In 1934, Leo was enrolled in the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps. He was put to work planting trees and fixing roads in Nebraska. Most of his pay was sent home to his mom. He did that until he turned 18, so for about a year, and then he started working on a farm in York County where he met my Grandma, who was a one room school teacher. He was thirteen years younger than she was; yes, thirteen years. He was 20 and she was 34. After they married he went to work in Oregon, which he fell in love with. At least one of his older brother’s had already moved out there. A few years later they moved back to Nebraska to farm Grandma’s family farm.
Amelia Earhart took off on her ill-fated flight around the world in March of 1937. So when and where did Grandpa and Ms. Earhart cross paths? I searched the internet for years to no avail. But then, last summer I was in York on a quick research trip and stopped in at the Local Historical Museum. As I was searching for other stories, the librarian handed me some local history books to look through. And lo and behold, in one of them was a story about Amelia Earhart landing in York, Nebraska in May of 1931. In the book was a picture of her and then a picture of her Beech Nut sponsored airplane surrounded by young teenage boys and men. I just knew one of those young teen boys was my grandpa Leo. He would have been 13 at that time. The librarian then found an old newspaper article that explained why Amelia had made a pit stop at York’s grass airport. She was on a trip to the Pacific in her Autogyro plane she called the “Windmill”. She had taken off in Omaha that morning planning to make it to Grand Island before refueling but a strong head wind had made it necessary to land at the Hagood Airport in York for refueling.
This was such an awesome find and great confirmation on my grandpa’s story. I can just imagine a young airplane crazy boy in 1931 being enthralled with Amelia Earhart and her plane. By the time he was about twenty-one he was flying his own airplanes. Other relatives have told stories about his crazy plane stunts; flying low to the ground and shooting coyotes over the side, landing the plane on the back of a hay trailer, even crashing a few times. My grandma finally made him give up his planes sometime in the ‘50s. By the time I knew him he was a mature farmer who rarely talked but I could always tell he still had a barely caged sense of adventure. One of my favorite memories of time spent with him was when he took me for a ride on his motorcycle; flying down the dirt roads, and for just that space of time he was young and free again!