Flew in Amelia Earhart’s Airplane, Always Puts Others Before Self

Anne Fiyalka has led a storied life. That’s not to say it’s been easy. Born on Feb. 15, 1921, she recalls a long life of overcoming adversity, large and small, and daring to embrace adventure whenever it came her way.

Anne Fiyalka looks through one of the many scrapbooks that chronicles her long life. — Rick Falco Photo
Anne Fiyalka looks through one of the many scrapbooks that chronicles her long life. — Rick Falco Photo

“My mother always told me that the day of my Christening there was a big snowstorm,” she said. “The horse and wagon they rented got stuck in the snow and they carried me to the church. I was five days old.”

In recent years Anne earned a reputation for public speaking, staying active and engaged in community life, keeping the faith and helping others. She worked at the polls as a checker since 1987 and volunteered at the Easton Senior Center until the pandemic.

To mark her centennial birthday friends planned a drive-by parade on Monday, Feb. 15 at 2 p.m. as a safe way to celebrate during the pandemic. See our separate coverage of the car parade after it happens.

Anne wakes up each morning full of faith and excited about what the new day will bring. She continues to demonstrate the zest for living she exhibited at an early age when she accepted the chance to ride in Amelia Earhart’s airplane as a high school honors student.

Early Years

In 1935 Anne graduated from St, John’s Catholic School and credits the school Sisters of Notre Dame for her great education, especially the spiritual one. She flew in Amelia Earhart’s airplane when the acclaimed aviator visited Warren Harding High School on Nov. 5, 1936. She graduated magna cum laude from Warren Harding High School in 1939.

She took a Civil Service Exam and worked at the Bridgeport Board of Education office for $18.75 a week. After a few years she took a job for a CPA (J.William Hope and Co.) In 1949. Hope was the first ringmaster of the Barnum Parade. She played the part of Mary Magdalen in a play titled The Upper Room, and that is where she met her husband, Al.

They married in 1946 and had four children, one with special needs. In 1959 the family moved to Stamford when Al was promoted to manager of the Social Security Office in Stamford. Sadly, he had a heart attack and died in 1973 when their youngest child, Andrea was 12 and Arnold was 15. Arthur was 23 and working, and Arlene, their daughter with special needs, was 22. 

Anne went to work as an office manager of an electrical contracting company to support her family. Since her house was headquarters for extended family birthdays and holidays, her brother convinced her that she should move closer to him. He found the house for her in Easton where she still lives to this day with her son Arnold. 

Active Retirement

Anne has stayed active and engaged in her later years, serving as a role model for many. The pandemic took its toll because she could no longer go bowling and pursue her usual activities at the Easton Senior Center. She stayed as active as she could inside her house but it wasn’t the same as being out and about. Recently she fell and injured her hip, requiring surgery, but she is recovering well at home with the help of her granddaughter, Allyson and daughter, Andrea.

“I have been retired 35 years but have kept myself busy volunteering at the Easton Senior Center and being a Eucharistic minister and reader at Notre Dame Church,” she said about her pre-pandemic life. She has also stayed busy “running errands for my friends who no longer drive playing Scrabble on the computer, reading and, of course cooking and cleaning.”

She often makes pizzelles, fancy Italian waffle cookies, to give to friends and families for special occasions. They are very popular. “I must have made a million already,” she said.

Andrea, who has moved in temporarily to help her mom during her recovery, said she is grateful that her Mom is well and active and celebrating 100 years, especially after losing her dad at a young age.

“I feel so blessed,” Andrea said. “God has given her such a long life. She keeps her mind stimulated and knows so many people. She puts everyone’s needs before her own. She’s always been that way.”

In addition to Allyson, Andrea has two sons, Brett and Tyler, and they will all be celebrating the big event virtually if not in person.

Anne’s cousin, the Rev. George Lucas, aka Father George, is a missionary priest assigned to Peru. He visits her whenever  he returns to the U.S. on vacation and Anne invites her friends to her house for lunch and prayers with Father George.

Friends gather at Anne Fiyalka’s house for lunch and prayers with Father George Lucas.

Father George said he was sorry that he will miss the “drive-by” parade. “I hope Anne gets a good seat at her picture window or even closer to the road if that’s possible,” he said. “I do not have any special stories to pass on related to 100th birthdays. In fact, Anne, is among the first ones I know to reach that wonderful age.

“Thank God, in spite of some recent aches and pains, she continues to enjoy the blessings of a sound mind and body, Her love for people and for keeping active and for helping out seem to be her special formula for longevity. I should not forget to mention God’s blessings, too.”

Anne collects dragon flies of all shapes and sizes. They mean a lot to her and told a poem about them them to explain why.

“Anne is a true Connecticut  treasure,” said Dolly Curtis, another longtime resident and a friend. “She is smart, interesting and enjoyable to be with, a role model for all of us. Everyone who is fortunate enough to know her agrees her personality brings us all an example of a life well lived. Congratulations, Anne, on this wonderful chance we have to celebrate with you on this your 100th birthday. You have given us all a gift.”

Anne told Papageorge about her busy schedule pre-pandemic and how much things have changed. She has since received the first dose of the Covid vaccine and will soon receive the second. 

Stories and Speaking Engagements

Anne has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles about her flight with Amelia Earhart, her public speaking on many topics including women’s rights, and her extraordinary active and healthy life into her 90s and beyond.

A favorite article among her friends is an Easton Front Porch story by Gale Papageorge: Mother, Community Volunteer, Feminist and Storyteller Extraordinaire.

Anne Fiyalka when she played the part of Mary Magdalene and now. — Nancy Doniger Photo

“Whenever I listen to one of her stories, I find myself hanging on to every word, transported to another time and place, where I imagine, laugh and sometimes cry,” Papageorge wrote. 

“Integrating her life stories with themes of faith, love, hope and inclusion, her favorite story is her flight with Amelia Earhart in 1936, while a sophomore at Warren Harding high school. Anne was among one of three students chosen to fly with Earhart because of her excellent grade point average. While they were up in the air soaring through the vast horizon, Amelia turned to Anne in the front passenger seat and said, “It is not only a man’s world. It’s a woman’s world, as well.”

“I’ve had a blessed and long life,” she said. “I’m not afraid of death.” 

Suzanne Sheridan selected Anne as one of the subjects of her Wisdom Goddess Project that focused on older women and their achievements. Sheridan’s portrait is Anne’s favorite. You can see the portrait and learn more about the project here.

Anne was a speaker in 2019 at She Will Thrive, an Equality in the Workplace Event at Iona College. Easton resident Sarah Lehberger also participated in the Women’s History Month event.

She is one of the longtime Eastonites who told her story as part of the Easton 175th Anniversary Oral History Project in conjunction with the Easton Public Library.

Stories about Anne’s life have also appeared in other Connecticut news sites:

Easton woman recalls flying with Amelia Earhart as officials celebrate state’s female aviators

’39 Harding grad recalls flying with a legend

Seniors to hear stories of flying with Earhart

Photo at top: Anne Fiyalka once flew with Amelia Earhart and fills her daily calendar with activities. — Rick Falco Photo

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By Nancy Doniger

Nancy Doniger worked as a journalist for three decades and was a founding editor of the nonprofit Easton Courier in partnership with the School of Communications, Media & the Arts at Sacred Heart University (SHU). She served two years as executive member and is now a contributing editing of the Easton Courier. She was a former managing editor of Hometown Publications and Hersam Acorn Newspapers covering Connecticut's Fairfield and New Haven counties. She was a correspondent for the Connecticut section of The New York Times from 1995 until the section was discontinued in 2006. Over the years she edited The Easton Courier, The Monroe Courier, The Bridgeport News and other community newspapers. She taught news editing as an adjunct professor at SHU and served as coordinator and member of the Community Assets Network for the Easton, Redding and Region 9 schools. She was a member of the Newtown Community Center Commission, member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), board member of the New England Newspaper and Press Association (NENPA), and past president and board member of the Barnard Club of Connecticut. She has won awards for her writing from SPJ and NENPA.