Bette Nash, 81, is a bit of a celebrity.
It’s early Thursday morning and Nash — stylish brown updo kept in place with three tiny brown clips, a bit of sparkle on her eyelids and just the right amount of blush — has just strolled up to Gate 19 at Reagan National Airport, where American Airlines Flight 2160 bound for Boston is parked and preparing for boarding.
As she pauses at the counter to adjust her scarf, a 20-something guy looks up. He lets out a gasp.
“Oh, my God,” he says excitedly. “Are you Bette Nash? Can I have your picture?”
This is what life is like when you are Nash, who has been flying since Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House and a ticket for a flight cost $12.
The 20-something in question, Pavel Boress, is an American Eagle flight attendant who has long known of Nash but never had the chance to meet her. Hugs are exchanged. They snap a selfie together.
“Everybody in the industry knows about Bette,” Boress says, still giddy from the encounter. “She’s an inspiration.”
At a party celebrating her 60th anniversary this month at National, she had the crowd in stitches with her observations, including this bit of fashion commentary: “In the old days, we saw a lot of mink coats,” she said. “Today, we see a lot of flip-flops.”
The mandatory retirement age for pilots in the industry is 65, but there is no such thing for flight attendants, so Nash is still flying.
She’s worked other routes during her long career, but the D.C.-to-Boston shuttle, known affectionately as the “Nash Dash” to her regulars — is her favorite. It requires her to be up before the chickens — the alarm in her Manassas, Va., home goes off at 2:10 a.m. — but it gets the single mom home in time to have dinner with her son, who has Down syndrome and lives with her.
The route brings her into contact with power brokers of all types, in different industries and of varying political persuasions.
Karen Clougherty, a retired Defense Department contractor and Nash Dash regular who lives in Alexandria, Va., but has family in Boston says, “There’s just this spark — she’s the first one you see when you get on. She knows you and gives you a hug. I will change my schedule if I know Bette is flying.”
Nash, the eldest of three sisters who grew up just outside Atlantic City, was a fresh-faced 21-year-old when the call went out for girls — because that’s what they were called then — looking for a little adventure. It seemed far more glamorous than her job as a legal secretary, and the idea of meeting people from all over appealed to her innate curiosity. She borrowed a suit from one of her sisters, and two interviews later she was hired by Eastern Air Lines.
Stories? She has many. There was the flight from Washington to Miami with nine stops in between. Or the time her plane hit turbulence so bad that the toilet in the lavatory separated from the floor. In the early days, pillbox hats, girdles and garter belts were required. Once, her garter belt snapped midflight. Nash didn’t panic — no — she casually bent down, scooped it up and continued with the beverage service. There were the days when she served lobster and carved meats to passengers. Oh, and the time she flew with Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy Jr.
Lobster dinners and $12 tickets may be a thing of the past, but one thing remains constant: the philosophy Nash has embraced since she started in 1957.
For Nash, it is the people — both the passengers and her co-workers — who keep her coming back at a time when most folks have packed it in. The everyday stresses she might be dealing with seem to melt away once she’s on board.