At the core of the debate of whether to rename Lambert-St. Louis International Airport is the question of keeping top billing for a name from the past, or better highlighting the geographic link between the airport and the region.
No one is advocating that the name of Albert Bond Lambert be erased from the airport’s title.
But two of his great-grandchildren say a proposed new name — St. Louis International Airport at Lambert Field — doesn’t do justice to the man who founded it.
“I don’t see any benefit to it,” said Lea Bender, 54, of changing the name. “I think there is a way to preserve history and the city’s great achievements that doesn’t prevent future growth. They can co-exist.”
Her Ladue home is on land that has been in the Lambert family for about 75 years. A framed photo signed by Charles Lindbergh, written to Lambert, showing Lindbergh standing next to the Spirit of St. Louis plane before his historic nonstop flight from New York to Paris in 1927 hangs in her living room. So does a copy of the resolution that created the airport the same year.
Lambert’s family made Listerine mouthwash, but his passion was aviation. He learned to fly with the Wright Brothers and served in the U.S. Army in World War I — he brought the 1923 International Air Races to St. Louis and the airfield was christened Lambert St. Louis Flying Field in his honor.
Lindbergh flew to St. Louis to attend the air races and decided to remain as an instructor. Lambert became one of Lindbergh’s first financial backers for the trans-Atlantic flight.
Lambert, an Olympic golfer as well, sold to the city of St. Louis his 170-acre flying field in northwestern St. Louis County in 1928 and an option on an adjoining 76 acres for $60,000. That was half the market value, and the 246 acres were the start of the current airport.
The role he played in St. Louis aviation can’t be overstated, said Bender’s brother, George Diederich of University City.
Both Diederich and Bender want the airport’s name left unchanged.
“It’s a sense of deep pride,” Diederich, 49, said of going to the airport and seeing the Lambert name on the signs.
He also said that many people don’t know who Chouteau Avenue is named for — René Auguste Chouteau Jr. was a fur trader and key in founding St. Louis — but no one is saying the street’s name should be changed.
“It is absolutely not our intent to let the history go,” said Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, the airport’s director. She said airport officials tried to find Lambert descendants while pondering the new name, but none came up in their searches.
She said a study of how better to market Lambert, especially globally, found something very basic — that its name doesn’t focus on St. Louis.
According to an airport study released this month, those outside the St. Louis region don’t connect with the historical name Lambert, and few in the region can accurately define Lambert’s role in the airport’s history either.
Fewer than 17 of the 600 respondents in a survey correctly identified the connection and relevance of Lambert’s name and the reason the airport is named for him.
The name change has the support of several business groups, including Civic Progress, an organization of top executives from the region’s largest companies.
“When someone says, ‘What airport is that?’ there’s no doubt when you say, ‘St. Louis International Airport.’ When you say, ‘Lambert,’ they say where is that?” she said. “This is a way to tie it all together and keep the ties to the history and the family.”
She has a lunch planned with Laurie Haffenreffer, whose grandmother was married to Albert Bond Lambert Jr., to whom she was not biologically related but considered a grandfather. Haffenreffer, along with her stepcousins, opposes a name change, and Hamm-Niebruegge said she’d like to meet with Bender and Diederich, too.
Any name change must be approved by the airport’s board of commissioners, as well as by the city’s Board of Estimate and Apportionment and the Board of Aldermen. The airport commission is likely to vote on the name change at its next meeting on Sept. 7.
When Lindbergh objected
The airport’s name has been changed several times through the years, and this isn’t the first time Lambert’s name has been at the crux of a proposed name change, said Daniel Rust, author of “The Aerial Crossroads of America: St. Louis’s Lambert Airport” that’s set to come out in November.
The airport was Lambert St. Louis Municipal Airport from 1930 to 1970, when an idea emerged to shorten the name to St. Louis International Airport — dropping Lambert.
Lambert had died 24 years earlier, so many people still remembered his contributions. More than 200 people wrote letters opposing the move, and 5,000 signed petitions. Lindbergh was among those fighting the removal of Lambert’s name.
In a letter to city officials, Lindbergh said Lambert’s name “adds a human interest to the overused and almost-faceless term ‘international.’ Character is lost when faceless terms come into common use, and I am among those who don’t want to see St. Louis lose its character.”
Airport officials relented in 1971, and adopted the name Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, which it remains.
“You can’t talk early aviation in St. Louis without mentioning Lambert,” Rust said.
Rust wants Lambert’s name kept in the airport’s name, although he isn’t concerned that it’s not the first word in the title. It’s a sentiment shared by Lambert’s last-surviving grandson, Albert Boehmer. He’s 76 and lives in a University City senior-living facility.
Boehmer, who was 6 when Lambert died, said that changing the airport’s name to St. Louis International Airport at Lambert Field was fine with him.
These days, few Lamberts remain. Many of Lambert’s descendants didn’t have children. And those who did have passed down family names.
Bender and Diederich’s mother’s name was Myrtle, the third generation of Lambert women to carry the name.
Bender is named for George Lea Lambert, Lambert’s son who died in a plane crash near Black Jack in 1929.
Her daughter, 19, also is named Lea, and older daughter is Christian Lambert Bender, 22.
Bender, Diederich and their sister Emilie Buschman, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., didn’t have cousins around growing up.
“It’s getting hard to fill the table at Thanksgiving,” Bender said. “That may be why we hold onto the family names.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated Monday to correct the time when the Charles Lindbergh photo was taken.