Elgin man nothing like his role in old airline photo

  • When he posed for this photograph promoting United Airlines' men-only flights in 1967, Harold "Dick" Pottker, the man with the pipe, never dreamed it would show up a half-century later as a way to illustrate sex discrimination. Now 82 and living in Elgin, Pottker's life tells a much different story.

    When he posed for this photograph promoting United Airlines' men-only flights in 1967, Harold "Dick" Pottker, the man with the pipe, never dreamed it would show up a half-century later as a way to illustrate sex discrimination. Now 82 and living in Elgin, Pottker's life tells a much different story. Courtesy of Shari Worrell

  • In this photo taken during a Christmas celebration in 2008, Dick Pottker puts his arm around his wife, Suzanne. The Elgin couple were nearing their 60th wedding anniversary when Suzanne, a longtime nurse at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, died of lung cancer in March.

    In this photo taken during a Christmas celebration in 2008, Dick Pottker puts his arm around his wife, Suzanne. The Elgin couple were nearing their 60th wedding anniversary when Suzanne, a longtime nurse at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, died of lung cancer in March. Courtesy of James Pottker

  • A quirky set of circumstances led Dick Pottker to pose for an iconic photo promoting a "men-only" flight, where male passengers were pampered by female flight attendants. But in his home life, Pottker supported his wife, Suzanne, who enrolled in college after their three kids were in school and built a career as an emergency room nurse.

    A quirky set of circumstances led Dick Pottker to pose for an iconic photo promoting a "men-only" flight, where male passengers were pampered by female flight attendants. But in his home life, Pottker supported his wife, Suzanne, who enrolled in college after their three kids were in school and built a career as an emergency room nurse. Courtesy of James Pottker

 
 
Posted10/23/2014 5:00 AM

As United Airlines' staff assistant to the station manager, Harold "Dick" Pottker remembers working that day in 1967 when a company photographer ducked into the supervisor's office looking for "a couple clean white shirts" to pose for a photograph publicizing the airline's new "men-only" executive flights.

The boss stuck his head into Pottker's office on the mezzanine level at O'Hare International Airport and asked, "Are you busy?"

 

"Well, I'm talking to you, so no," quipped Pottker, who admittedly was a bit of a wiseacre back his 30s.

Forty-seven years later, the 82-year-old Pottker picks up last Sunday's Daily Herald delivered to his home in Elgin. "I was getting ready to go to church, and I opened the paper," he says. There on page 6 is that old black-and-white photo of him. He's wearing his crisp white shirt and tie. He's cradling a cocktail glass in his left hand, holding a pipe in his right, and grinning mischievously as his baby-blue eyes focus on the "stewardess" leaning over to light his seat mate's cigar.

The photo was the perfect shot to illustrate the sex discrimination that was prominent in the 1960s and led to many civil rights lawsuits filed by flight attendants. But the Pottker portrayed as a poster boy for sex discrimination couldn't have been more different from the suburban husband and father behind that photo.

"Dad did a lot of work around the house because Mom had allergies to the soap," remembers son James Pottker, 58, of Elk Grove Village, who followed in his father's footsteps to become a supervisor with United.

"He did the dishes and the laundry," recalls daughter Cindy, who works in property management and lives in St. Charles.

"And I got to be his helper," James Pottker says.

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Not only did the senior Pottker do more housework than many of his male peers, but he also made it possible for his wife, Suzanne, to go to college and build a career in nursing. When Janet, the youngest of their three kids, was old enough for school, Suzanne Pottker started taking classes at the newly opened Harper College in Palatine.

"She was a wonderful nurse in the emergency room at Northwest Community Hospital for 24 years," Dick Pottker says. His wife, whom most people knew as Suzie, died at age 79 of lung cancer in March, a month before they would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Her ashes rest in a nicely decorated box in a small shrine in the family home.

Suzanne Lane grew up on the North Side of Chicago, and Pottker's family lived on the West Side. They met when he was in the Navy.

"I did submarine duty on a sub base in Key West, Fla.," he recalls. Home on leave, Pottker got talked into tagging along with a buddy to a Northwestern University fraternity dance, where Suzie was his blind date.

"We started going together that night, and that was it," Dick Pottker says. Married in 1954, he took a job with United.

"I started out loading airplanes," he says. He retired in 1991 from a supervisor's position.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That photo of him "was in all the newspapers and magazines" in 1967, and his wife didn't mind at all. But his kids didn't know about the photo for decades.

"I thought it was kind of cool, just him being involved in that," James Pottker says. "He's not a real public guy. I was proud of him for doing that -- his five minutes of fame."

Sunday's reprint added to his fame allotment.

"I got three phone calls Sunday afternoon," Pottker says, referring to his kids. "They're still excited."

As a role model for his six grandsons, two great-grandsons and one granddaughter, Pottker wants to clear up a couple of other faulty impressions people might get from that photograph.

"I didn't smoke a pipe," says Pottker, who will turn 83 in December. "I never smoked cigarettes or cigars. And I want to tell you that's not a real cocktail in that glass."

He took the newspaper with him to show people at church, and again on Tuesday during his weekly skeet-shooting with buddies, where it gave the guys something to joke about instead of Pottker's status as the only guy who doesn't need glasses. Pottker says he understands how a photograph taken so innocently can change in meaning during the decades. In another 47 years, that photo will still be floating around, and maybe some other medium will use it as an illustration for something completely different.

"Oh, my God," Pottker says. "If I'm still around for that, that really would be something."

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