What makes this tablecloth unique and well worth preserving
in the world's top aerospace museum is that it bears the signatures of more
than 500 key aviation personalities. All these signatures were embroidered for
posterity by Mrs. James H. Doolittle, the recently deceased wife of the
The tablecloth preserves the original handwriting of Orville
Wright, Eddie Rickenbacker, and many of the other "name" pioneers of
aviation. At least as important, however, is the way that it helps preserve
something of the spirit of the remarkable woman who created it.
Called "Joe" by all who knew her, Mrs. Doolittle
was born Josephine Daniels. She was given her lifelong nickname of
"Joe" by her father, who spelled it with an "e" because he
had wanted a boy. In future years, she came to be known as
"Mama Joe" to her adopted family, Doolittle's
The Doolittles were always noted for their gracious
hospitality. Wherever they lived, their home was a favorite place for pilots to
remain overnight, relax, and sample Joe's excellent cooking. As her husband's
fame grew with his ever-growing list of accomplishments, so did the number of
visitors who would drop in to take potluck. Never surprised at whom Jimmy would
bring home, Joe would put an additional leaf in the dining room table, set
another place, and stretch whatever she' had on her menu.
Joe became an expert in the use of leftovers, coming up with
enough recipes to fill a cookbook. "Leftovers got to be such a
problem," she once explained. "I thought something intelligent ought
to be done about them." While she never had time to put the recipes into
book form, she felt that all of hers should be shared as widely as possible.
Cooking might have been her specialty, but one of her
hobbies during the 1930s was embroidering her tablecloth. After a meal at the
Doolittle home, each guest who had not previously done so would be asked to
sign his or her name on the tablecloth in pencil. Then, whether on one of her
many trips with Jimmy or while waiting for his return, Joe would carefully
stitch the signatures in black thread.
A Who's Who of
Over the years, the tablecloth came to represent a Who's Who
of aviation. In addition to Wright and Rickenbacker, those who signed their
names included Alexander P. deSeversky, Elmer Sperry, E. M. "Matty"
Laird, Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Ruth Nichols, Laura Ingalls, Albert F.
Hegenberger, John A. Macready, Walter H. Beech, St. Clair Streett, Benjamin S.
Kelsey, and Frank Hawks.
Other guests were the famous German pilots Ernst Udet and
Ellie Beinhorn. Three of the 1924 round-the-world flyers—Leigh Wade, Lowell
Smith, and Leslie Arnold—also signed. Several Chinese names are embroidered on
the tablecloth, as are those of long-time family friends such as
"Hungry" Gates, "Thirsty" Gaines, "Gabby"
Henshaw, and "Bromo" Seiser.
The world of the Doolittles was not limited to aviation.
Other signatures stitched in silk for posterity include those of
writer-adventurer Lowell Thomas, comedians Olsen and Johnson, and singer Lawrence
Tibbett, a man both Doolittles had known since high school days.
For all its historical interest, the tablecloth is even more
reflective of the nature of the Doolittles themselves. The number of
embroidered signatures provides a dramatic reminder of the open and gracious
way of life that the couple pursued through seven decades of happy marriage.
Warm, friendly, and hospitable, the man with the famous grin and his gracious
white-haired lady touched the lives of thousands.
As Jimmy continued to reach out and widen the couple's
circle of friends and acquaintances, Joe kept up correspondence at a prodigious
pace. She never failed to send notes to "my shut-ins" whenever she
learned of friends who were ill, had suffered bad luck, or had experienced
personal tragedy. Even more remarkable, she wrote to the unfortunates every day
until they were functioning again. During one lengthy trip around the world
with Jimmy, she mailed 500 cards to friends and relatives in a single day. Her
messages of friendship, sympathy, and courage brightened the lives of all on
whom she focused her special brand of love and encouragement. Her letters
continue to be prized by all who received them.
A Revered Figure
Joe died last December 24, the Doolittles' seventy-first
anniversary, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Having met in high
school, she and Jimmy remained sweethearts ever after.
Mama Joe bore two sons and was a revered figure to her six
grandchildren and fourteen great -grandchildren.
In a graveside eulogy, granddaughter Jonna Doolittle Hoppes
paid Joe a tribute that reflected the sentiments of all those whose lives she
"Granny was the embodiment of goodness," she
began. "She was everything that is good, everything that is kind. She
always had a smile for everyone, a kind word. She was never in so much of a
hurry that she couldn't stop and say 'Hello' or 'Thank you.' She always made
you feel she was glad to see you.
"She [was] ... that special person who cooked
unforgettable meals ... and who always took the time to have those treats she
knew you loved.
"She [was] ... someone I could talk to and who could
talk to me. Someone I had fun with. Someone I just enjoyed being with. We
played cards, went to the theater, went to lunch, talked until dawn ....
"She lived a glamorous life filled with adventure and
surrounded by all kinds of people. But it wasn't without its sorrows, and
through those sorrows she showed her strength, her wisdom .... I came to depend
upon her wisdom, to value her honesty, and to respect the remarkable woman she
Mama Joe's tablecloth is not only a lasting tribute to her
friends, but her final gift to everyone.
C. V. Glines is a
regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a
free-lance writer, a magazine editor, and the author of numerous books. His
most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was "The First Intercom"
in the March '89 issue.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag