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Women's History Month: TPA's first female leaders recall breaking barriers in a male-dominated aviation industry

Adelaide Few, Arthenia Joyner and other groundbreaking women served on the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Board and made important decisions that shaped the Airport's path.

Adelaide Few remembers a time before Tampa International Airport ever existed. Some of her earliest memories are of riding in her father’s truck along Dale Mabry, a newly constructed road built to connect MacDill Air Force Base to Drew Field. Her father would pick up soldiers and bring them home for a homecooked meal on Sundays after a long day of training. 

“I was just a little girl and he would drive to the Main Gate of Drew Field, which was at Columbus Drive and Dale Mabry,” Few recalled. 

After the war, Drew Field was eventually turned back over to the City of Tampa for civilian use and was renamed Drew Field Municipal Airport. 

It is where Few would capture her fascination for aviation, despite it being an industry that very few women got involved with outside of being a flight attendant or secretary. She had no idea she would go on to become so involved in making big decisions to help her community airport grow by serving on the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Board.

She was one of a handful of local groundbreaking women to do so, and some of them recently visited TPA's new SkyCenter One building to hear more about the Airport today and the future that lies ahead.

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Few caught the aviation bug early in life, before she even stepped on a plane. At 13 years old, she was sent to Drew Field to interview an employee about careers for a civics project at school. 

“The terminal back then was on the north side of the east-west runway,” recalls Few. “A very nice stewardess from National Airlines took me on board a plane. I was in junior high and had never stepped foot on a plane and had never flown. The idea of being a stewardess was like dreaming to be a movie star back then.” 

Few went on to graduate from Tampa’s Plant High School before traveling north by train to attend Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She would later transfer to the University of Florida where she met her future husband and, while serving in student government, became close friends with the future Governor of Florida, Bob Graham. 

While in Gainesville, Few had aspirations to attend law school but vividly remembers how she was treated by male students. 

“Back then, if a woman walked on campus at the University of Florida Law School, the first man that saw her would start shuffling his feet,” recalls Few. “By the time I got to the library, everybody was shuffling their feet. It was to intimidate, and they were incredibly successful.” 

It’s part of the reason Few says she didn’t enroll. 

“They scared the daylights out of me,” said Few. “The law school didn’t have any women, and they wanted to keep it that way.” 

Instead, she headed back to Tampa to start a family with her husband. 

But the impression she made with former classmate Bob Graham paid off. When Graham was elected Governor of Florida and took office in 1979, one of his first orders of business was to make an appointment to the Board of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. The person he selected was Few, who would become the first appointed woman to ever serve on the HCAA Board. 

“Everyone was in shock that a woman had been appointed," Few said. “No one had even thought about a woman being appointed.”

Early on, she remembers how the Board Chair attempted to oust George Bean from his position as Tampa International Airport’s Executive Director. 

“They thought I was going to be a rubber stamp and just go along with it,” remember Few. “It was an insidious attempt to overthrow everything. They wanted to take over the Airport, and I didn’t think what they were doing was right.” 

The effort failed and Few would go on to become the Board Chair two years later. She remembers the time she suggested during a board meeting to move a large brass sculpture that was impeding passenger traffic flow. 20230314_081646_0001

“I said you need to move it over here, and they joked, ‘Get a woman on the board and the first thing she does is start rearranging the furniture,’” Few remembered with a chuckle. 

During her time on the Board, Few says she was proud to be part of the Airport’s original long-range growth plans and the construction of a brand new Airside F. 

“I felt the responsibility. And I felt like I proved to myself, and everyone else that a woman could do it too,” said Few of her time on the Board. “To get that opportunity and to have that experience gave me such confidence.” 

In fact, she gained enough confidence to finally return to law school, earning her degree from Stetson University in 1985. 

Today, she still loves flying, especially when it involves taking off or landing at Tampa International Airport. 

“Every time I walk in the Airport, I am proud, proud, proud. And the more I travel, the prouder I am.” 

While Adelaide Few was the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority’s first appointed female board member, many others have since followed. In recognition of Women’s History Month, here are a few of our other early female leaders: 

Arthenia Joyner 

In 1991, Joyner was appointed to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority by Governor Lawton Chiles, becoming the first Governor-appointed Black board member in HCAA history. Joyner played a role in the development of the Airport Minority Advisory Council and in promoting hiring diversity for the Authority, serving on the Board until 1999. 


Stella Thayer 

Appointed to the HCAA board in 1993 by Governor Lawton Chiles, Thayer was instrumental in the creation of International Plaza, which was built on Airport property. She was elected Board Chair in 1995, succeeding Arthenia Joyner. 


Sandra Freedman

The first woman to be elected Mayor in Tampa, Freedman served on the HCAA Board during her time in office from 1986 to 1995. 

“There were very few women on the staff,” said Freedman of her time on the Board. “I cannot remember one manager that was on the staff that was a woman.” 

Today, nearly one-third of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority management team is female with 14 senior managers, six directors and two VPs. 

“I feel good because it finally happened, but it took an awful long time,” said Freedman. 

“As mayor, the Airport was always one of the gems you could talk about. The port was important, but the really big economic generator was the Airport,” she said. “It served the whole region and people thought it was such a wonderful Airport. I sat on loads of boards, and it was always the best run.” 

Sandy Freedman and Arthenia Joyner are among those honored in the Hillsborough County Women’s Hall of Fame. A photo and background on each inductee is on display on the Ticketing Level of the Main Terminal through the month of March.