In her lifetime Ellen Church was a pilot, a member of the army corps, a nurse, and a hospital administrator.
Her impact on history is remarkable considering she created the idea of what we know now as flight attendants.
Her accomplishments took her all over the country, but she spent some of her career right here in Terre Haute.
Born in Cresco, Iowa Ellen Church was a pilot and a registered nurse.
In 1930 Church was told that she couldn’t be hired as a pilot.

“She was definitely ahead of her time in what she accomplished in a man’s world and it was truly a man’s world when she was in aviation, in the Army, and in health care,” says Norma Shaw. 

Boeing Air did allow Church to give her idea a try and put registered nurses on flights they could call them “Sky Girls”.
The flight was from Oakland to Chicago and Church gathered a group of 7 other registered nurses who would be the first group of what later would be known as flight attendants.

“She convinced Boeing that role needed to happen and that nurses, registered nurses, could take care of the passengers far better than anybody else. And she made it happen,” says Shaw.

After an injury ended her career in the sky, Church got a Bachelor’s degree in nursing education.

“Well I think she was just a role model her entire life. She was a pioneer, with her becoming a pilot, creating the stewardess industry, and then she served in the war also,” says Shaw.

Church served during WWII in the Army Nurse Corps.
She earned the rank of Leutenant and was awarded a WWII Victory Medal.
After the war, Church made her way to Terre Haute, Indiana.
She was hired as director of nurses and later was promoted to administrator of Union Hospital, only the second woman ever to hold that position.
That’s where she met Norma Shaw who at the time was a student nurse.

“First time I met her I was a student nurse and I was absolutely petrified, that was in 1957, and she was the Hospital Administrator at that time,” says Shaw. “She was a very intimidating person. She had a mission to do here when she came on board as an administrator and that was to be very economical, because the hospital was not in good financial situation and she made it her business to make sure that everybody saved, saved, saved.”

Through her career career she remained a champion for women constantly fighting for women’s ability to succeed in what was then, a man’s world.

“She was tough there was no doubt about it. The lady was tough, and she would get after the doctors even,” says Shaw.

Church was proof that education is power. She demanded respect by all she encountered, her students, her peers, women, and men.

“It didn’t make any difference. A rule is a rule and it was not to be broken, and so you really had to respect her,” says Shaw.

But Church was always humble and led by example. She was committed to her job as an educator and as a medical professional.

“Whatever she pursued she did it with all the gusto she had,” says Shaw, “she changed everybody’s feelings about nursing I think. As did the school of nursing. I think that they really promoted nurses and tried to make everyone feel like they were a valuable employee and a vital part of health care.”

Despite Church’s tough exterior, she would occasionally show the side that made her an ideal fit for health care.

“She did have a very soft hear, but it was hard to see,” says Shaw.

Shaw went on to work for Union Hospital for more than 30 years after being one of Church’s students.
She says she remembers how powerful church’s energy was.

“If you followed Ellen you could do anything. Absolutely,” says Shaw, “no I don’t think she would ever think that men were all powerful because she wielded lots of power.”    

Church always portrayed key qualities that helped her become an icon in women’s history.

“To always try to do your best and follow the rules and try to make nursing and the hospital as good as it could be because that was her lifestyle, always,” says Shaw. “She thought outside the box.”

Though they are in a new building, Union Hospital made sure to always remember Church and the impact she made by handing a plaque that commemorates her service to the hospital.


Church was recognized by many throughout her career.
She passed away in 1965 in Terre Haute after a horse riding accident.
She is buried at Highland Lawn Cemetery.

You’ll be able to hear more stories like this on our “Celebrating Women” special.
You can catch it on:

WTWO, March 24th at 8:30 AM  

WAWAV, March 24th at 2:30 PM 

WAWV, March 31st at 2:30 PM