Helen Riley was a cheerful optimist whose favorite saying was, “Everything will be fine.”
Her daughter, Patricia Riley, said her mother was “still vibrant, beautiful and enthusiastic about each day” right up to the moment she died in Miami at age 95 on April 23.
“Just a week before she passed she said, ‘I can’t wait to get well, roll up my sleeves and get back to work at the office!’” her daughter said.
Riley, a flight attendant for National Airlines and wife of pilot Frank Riley, put her favorite saying into practice more than once as she enjoyed a nearly 70-year romance with a man who made history.
Frank Riley, at 43, was the pilot of the first American airliner to be hijacked to Cuba, on May 1, 1961.
As the ordeal unfolded, Helen Riley was with their children — 4-year-old daughter Patricia and 2-year-old son Jim — at her mother’s house in El Portal. The family turned on the television news.
Everything will be fine.
“They started talking about a missing airliner, and boom, it hit me, my husband was the pilot,” she said in a 1961 Miami Herald article. “For two hours we waited and worried. I knew he would pull through because he had some pretty close calls before.”
Riley, born on Dec. 28, 1921, to Polish immigrants in Dearborn, Michigan, moved to Miami with her family when she was 12. Her father, Thomas, had a tailor shop in Miami Beach. Riley later told her family that when she was a child a man strolled into the shop to pick up several suits her father had tailored. The man, she said, looked at her and said, “What a pretty little girl.” He was Al Capone.
Riley graduated from Miami Edison High School and when World War II broke out she went to work at the Navy station in Opa-locka. There, she was head of the records department. “She was showered with flowers, gifts and marriage proposals,” her family recalled.
She opted instead to join National Airlines and was promoted to chief stewardess — decades before “flight attendant” became the job’s title.
Daughter Patricia shares another story that captures her mother’s sunny outlook. “The funniest story is one that made Dodie Osteen, mother of famous preacher Joel Osteen, love my mother,” she said in an email to the Herald.
In 1948, Riley was working aboard a DC-4 en route to D.C. and piloted by Captain Frank Riley who was a decorated World War II pilot. “All the passengers got sick as the DC-4 bumped around in the very bad weather,” Patricia Riley said. “At the end of the flight she thought, ‘What a handsome pilot. Too bad he can’t fly worth a damn!’”
Everything will be fine.
Frank Riley was so smitten he arranged a crew schedule so that Helen was booked on all his flights. They eloped on March 12, 1949, after knowing each other for six months. The couple were together for the next 67 years until his death at 97 in Fort Lauderdale on May 25, 2016.
During their marriage, Riley joined her husband in Tachikawa, Japan, after he took a leave from National to serve in the Korean War. She loved her time in Japan, her daughter said, charmed by the culture, its people and the artwork, much of which graced the couple’s home in El Portal after they returned to the States and her husband rejoined National Airlines.
In the late 1970s, their daughter Patricia founded the nationwide cosmetics company, Clientele. She gives credit to her mother who worked alongside her. The two traveled the world on business. “The customers loved her, she was fantastic,” she said. Actor Chuck Connors, star of TV’s “The Rifleman,” once told Patricia, “Your mother, she lights up the room.”
Said Patricia, “She lived life in living color, always cheerful and positive. Her love of family and business was a driving force and inspiration to her children.”
In addition to her daughter, Riley is survived by her son James Barrett Riley, seven grandchildren, and her sister Emily. Services were held.