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By 1909, the Wrights were the celebrated figures of their era; the world wanted a piece of them as they prepared for a grand tour of Europe. But the brothers, tongue-tied as ever, were ill-equipped to mingle with the European elite. "They're not the kind of guys you would want to invite to dinner," says biographer Richard Maurer, author of The Wright Sister—Katharine Wright and Her Famous Brothers. "You could picture them coming over for dinner and not saying a word."


The Wright Brothers: Honorary Oberlinians

Katharine was just 15 when her mother died of tuberculosis. Bishop Milton Wright, determined that his own straight-laced values be reflected in a college for his daughter, chose Oberlin, where students rose at 6 a.m., went to bed at 10 p.m., and were forbidden to smoke or drink. Daily chapel was mandatory, as were essays on moral conduct. Katharine arrived at Oberlin in 1893, opening ties between the Wright family and the College that continue to this day. (Katharine's husband, Harry Haskell, also leaves Oberlin legacies with granddaughter Judith Haskell Zernich '72; her husband, Milas Zernich '72; and their daughters, Haley and Morgan, current students.)

Neither of Katharine's famous brothers attended college, but they came to adopt Oberlin, which in turn, embraced them. Both were honorary members of Katharine's Class of 1898 and received honorary degrees in 1910 at the height of their fame. "The brothers had a great deal of affection for Oberlin," says Katharine's biographer, Richard Maurer. "Orville loved to go to Oberlin football games."

When the brothers received their honorary degrees, they shared the podium with another inventor, Charles Martin Hall, Class of 1885. Hall had founded the firm that eventually became ALCOA after discovering the process for cheaply producing aluminum from ore. The lightweight metal, which the Wrights used in parts of their engine, helped their early flier off the ground.

Norman Craig '53, emeritus professor of chemistry at Oberlin, says it may have been more than coincidence that the brothers and Hall were honored together. "Somebody connected these people and rightly so. There are things we wouldn't have without aluminum. One is flight."

Despite Orville's estrangement from Katharine in later years, his ties to Oberlin continued after her death in 1929. He bequeathed more than $300,000 to the College—the equivalent of millions of dollars today—upon his death in 1948, presumably in honor of Katharine.

The gift was roughly equal to what the College had spent in the early 1940s for its physics building, which was renamed the Wilbur & Orville Wright Laboratory of Physics.

After Orville's death, the College contracted to publish the Wright brothers' papers, which had been left in a jumble to the Library of Congress. "Orville was not a very literary guy, and he never took the time to organize them," says Bruce Richards, professor of physics and Wright historian. The 1,278-page volume set was published in 1953 to mark the 50th anniversary of the world's first powered flight.

This fall, the physics department displayed the College's collection of Wright memorabilia, including two pieces of the primitive airplanes that pioneered powered flight, a bit of fabric from the wing of the brothers' first plane, and a rib from the wing of its successor, the 1904 Wright Flier.


So the brothers asked Katharine to be their social secretary during their European encounters with the rich and royal. Katharine hesitated; she would lose her job if she accepted, but she had never traveled to Europe, and Wilbur promised to improve upon her $6-a-day teaching salary.

She agreed to the offer and began learning French (Wilbur and Orville had made clear they had no intention of doing so), and with their sister breaking the ice, the trio was soon meeting the Who's Who of Europe—dukes, counts, and a trio of kings—Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, Edward VIII of England, and Alfonso XIII of Spain. "We have to bounce out early tomorrow morning and take the seven o'clock car to the country," wrote Katharine to her father from Italy. "The King is to come at eight o'clock. The Kings are a nuisance all right. They always come at such unearthly hours."

The Wrights' new circle of acquaintances was not limited to royalty. "We had J. Pierpont Morgan, his sister, daughter, and a friend out to visit yesterday," Katharine remarked in a letter from Rome. "They were very pleasant people." Morgan was then the most powerful financier and industrialist on the globe. Clearly, the former schoolteacher and her mechanic brothers had moved up in the world.

Always, the trio traveled together, and Katharine became as illustrious as her brothers—especially among the French, who were convinced she was the brain behind the airplane: all three siblings were awarded the French Legion of Honor. Back home, she helped with the family's burgeoning airplane manufacturing business, the Wright Company, and later became an officer.

But fame did not last. Wilbur died in 1912, just three years after their tour, while Orville faded from the aviation scene and largely dropped from public view. Katharine turned her energies to the suffrage movement, and later to her duties as an Oberlin trustee.

In those years, she and Orville rattled around Hawthorne Hill, the Dayton-area mansion he had built on 17 acres of land with his aviation fortune. Neither he nor Katharine had married. She was his closest friend, his confidant, and he assumed she would be there for him as he aged. Then, in what Orville perceived as the ultimate family betrayal, Katharine fell in love. She was 51.

Her suitor was Henry "Harry" Haskell, a widower and old friend from Oberlin who worked at the Kansas City Star. One of America's leading journalists, he would win two Pulitzer Prizes and was instrumental in hiring a young Ernest Hemingway for his first writing job as a reporter. Eventually, Harry became the paper's editor and part owner.

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