An Energetic Fireball, Still Flying High at 74!
How a person could possibly have accomplished all the things—BIG THINGS—that Carthage’s Rita Herring Ledda has done in her 74 years defies the imagination! It is especially amazing that she has managed to keep such a low, under-the-radar profile in a community this small. And even more incredible that she still is hardly slowing down, keeping a schedule and pace that people half her age would find beyond challenging.
One of her “big things” is her job. She is now in her 51st year of serving as a flight attendant for a major airline and still flies at least one international flight per month. While her seniority allows her to choose most any destination, her most frequent over the past several years have been Tel Aviv, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Munich, and Australia, with an upcoming trip to Tahiti on the schedule.
Rita flies out of San Francisco, but her roots and her heart are in Carthage. The Carthage home is the one she grew up in, the one her maternal grandparents, Buena Vista Rayburn and Annie Duke Rayburn, built around 1908. The one that had an outhouse and no bathroom until she was about six years old and still only has one closet. The one whose beautiful 40-plus acres of land she still mows and bush hogs herself with her father’s 60-year-old John Deere tractor. The one she and Adrian lovingly restored in 1994 but which still looks almost exactly as it did for most of her childhood.
Rita describes her mother Zuma as a very free spirit who loved to laugh and have a good time and who, except for her five marriages and divorces (three of those to Rita’s father Claude Herring!), “was one of the most solid people I have ever known. She was completely honest, a hard worker, a devoted parent, very frugal, and a great money saver; she appreciated the value of a penny and taught me to also. She would ‘hire’ me and pay me a penny for every stalk of Bahia grass I pulled out of the garden, and I was amazed at how quickly those pennies added up!”
She adds, “From that time, I have always loved to work. At 13 I was wrapping gifts at Perry Brothers on the square, and as an older teen worked for local CPA Charles P. Frazier during tax season. Even when I worked full-time jobs later as an adult, I nearly always had other side jobs as well. I have always loved working. In fact, I never have really considered it work; the money earned has always been secondary to just doing something I enjoyed! I still like my airline job as much as I did when I started!”
Rita had an older half-brother and half-sister born from Zuma’s earlier marriages, and a full brother a few years older than she, all of whom are now deceased. She muses, “I was the only one of the children who was born in a hospital; all the others were born right here in this house!” Her father Claude was originally from Garrison and worked in the shipyards in Jacksonville, Florida during World War II. When the war was over, the family moved to Houston so he could work in the shipyards there. Rita was born in Pasadena in 1944, but her grandfather Rayburn developed pancreatic cancer when she was only a year old, so the family moved back to the home in Carthage to help tend the farm and take care of him.
“We grew everything here,” she says, “Fruit and vegetables of all kinds, even tobacco! My grandfather was one of the first farmers in East Texas to grow strawberries to be sold commercially. And some of the flowers that still come up every year are from bulbs that he planted over 100 years ago!” She and Adrian still love East Texas gardening; they grow not only flowers, pine trees, and hay, but grapes, tomatoes, peppers, squash, figs, and pears.
Rita attended Carthage schools, graduating from CHS in 1962. She was active in Blue Birds and Camp Fire as a youngster, and one of the greatest passions of her life began at the Carthage City Pool when she took her first swimming lessons. “I was drawn to the water even before the lessons and loved to play around in our pond,” she says, “but afterwards I became an absolute water nymph! I spent as much time as I possibly could at the city pool! Walter Deppe taught scuba diving lessons there, and I was fascinated watching those divers. I was way too young to participate, but it gave me my first view of what later became a lifelong passion.”
Another great passion for her was the Carthage Band. “Our director Clarence J. Lambrecht wanted me to play clarinet or flute or drums,” she says, “but my Uncle Park Rayburn had played trumpet and French Horn in John Philip Sousa’s band, and I wanted to be just like him. I began playing cornet and really liked it! I also played French Horn some, but then I got to know band majorette Melva LaGrone, watched her twirl a baton, and knew I wanted to do that and be the best I could be at it. Melva and baton twirling helped me to develop self-confidence, but it took work and commitment. Every day after school I practiced my music for an hour and my twirling for an hour. I was later amazed when I was chosen to be drum major. Our director saw something in me that I have really never been able to see, and I am still amazed at that whole experience. It molded me for more things than I could ever have imagined—so many wonderful, adventurous, love-of-life things!”
Rita attended Panola College for a year after high school; her favorite teacher there was Mr. Phillips, who encouraged her to be a goal setter and helped her to perfect her secretarial skills, especially typing and shorthand. She then moved to Shreveport to work for Arkansas-Louisiana Gas during the day, also enrolling in some night classes at Cententary College. She roomed with her old friend Melva LaGrone, who later earned a PhD and taught calculus at Texas A&M. She has retired from A&M but still works part time teaching classes for an online university.
Rita heard about a club called Ark-La-Tex Divers and, recalling her earlier fascination with scuba diving, attended one of their meetings, joining immediately and taking lessons in their diving program. The club took frequent diving trips to the Gulf of Mexico to dive in 100 feet of water around oil rigs about 40 miles out, and Rita was hooked. She soon earned her diving instructor certification and became the first woman instructor in the Southwest Council Instructor program. The club began taking trips to the Florida Keys, eventually making dives at every one of them.
She worked for Arkansas-Louisiana Gas for about three years, then was hired as an executive secretary at an oil supply company, Continental Emsco. After awhile, she applied to one of the major airlines to be a stewardess and was accepted, but she changed her mind and turned down the acceptance, partly because she felt like she was needed by her employers, but mainly because she was still having so much fun with Ark-La-Tex Divers. Then a friend in the diving club took her for a joy ride in a Cessna 150 private plane, and she found one more passion—learning to fly!
“I borrowed $100 from a friend to take flying lessons,” she says. “At that time you could rent a plane for $11 per hour, with fuel, so that $100 got me pretty far. I became sort of restless and in need of a change, so I asked for a transfer to the company’s main office in Dallas. I stayed there for about a year and a half, but the water in the ocean was calling me, so I decided to move to Miami. I had no money and worked temp jobs for Manpower and Kelly Girls until I could get a job. I saw an ad in the paper for a position as executive secretary at the University of Miami Institute of Marine Sciences, and they hired me!”
She continues, “My bosses knew all the important people in the ‘underwater world,’ and I got to meet many of them, even Jacques Cousteau. I was able to go with divers in the Ocean Engineering Department to the Continental Shelf to put out dyes to study ocean currents, and that worked into teaching scuba diving so that the graduate students could be covered by the company insurance to dive on projects. It was a wonderful, exciting job, and I worked with the most fascinating people! In about 1967, I narrated the first Inter-American Underwater Festival held at Sea World on Rickenbacker Causeway next to the Marine Lab. For extra money and sailing lessons, I cleaned barnacles off the bottom of sailboats in Biscayne Bay by Coconut Grove, where I lived at the time. However, after a couple of years in Miami, I was ready for a change again, and the call to get back into flying was powerful.”
Rita applied to be a flight attendant and was accepted by two of the major airlines. She chose one over the other because it had bases in nine different cities, and the other didn’t have that many. Her goal was to live in all nine. After basic training, she chose San Francisco as her first base. “I had never been to California,” she says. “I intended to stay for a year or two and then begin trying out the other bases, but it turned out to be so incredible that I never left! In the 10 years between 1968 and 1978, I lived in nine different places in the San Francisco Bay area, all near the water that I loved so much. I also began flying planes again, logging hours toward getting my license to fly private planes. To help get those hours more quickly, I ferried planes from Northern to Southern California as a service to an airplane rental company. It worked well because as an airline employee, it was easy for me to just fly back north commercially.”
After getting her private license, she decided to start working on her commercial pilot’s license, with the idea of becoming a pilot for her airline. She continued ferrying planes to log hours until she reached the 200 hours required for the license and for participation in another goal, the 1973 Powder Puff Derby, an all-woman’s transcontinental air race from California to New York. She finished the race and came in just past the middle for time. She also decided to scrap the idea of becoming a pilot for a commercial airline because the cockpit was such a lonely place compared to the constant “people interaction” of a flight attendant. (She admits also that she probably had a bit too much impulsivity and daredevil in her to fly commercially.)
In the spring of 1973 she met Adrian Ledda on the tennis courts at the apartment complex where they both lived. By October they were engaged, and in April of 1974 they were married. Adrian owned a restaurant, and she bought out his partner’s share so they could work together.
From Rita’s Miami experience and travels, she brought new and different ideas to popularize their business and create waiting lines to get in. They served breakfast, lunch, and dinner 364 days per year using fresh local vegetables, made their own desserts, soups, and sauces, and served brunch each Sunday to about 700 people. The success enabled the restaurant to expand to a second restaurant in a different location, and a liquor store. They built the restaurants into two corporations, running three stores with 100 employees. They also put in a tennis court near the second location and played competitive tennis. During this time, Rita also earned her real estate license and her broker’s license, buying and selling properties and managing rental properties. The couple finally happily retired in 1991 and returned to the B.V. Rayburn homeplace in Carthage.
“When my mom passed away and we came back,” she says, “the property was a jungle. I had inherited my dad’s old John Deere, and a wonderful Good Samaritan, Carthage native and historian, and all-round incredible guy, Billy Langford, befriended me. He was an absolute Godsend who taught me how to operate and even fix things on the tractor and bush hog and how to clear that jungle. Once he even came to get me out of the pond when I got stuck (probably because I’m the same kind of driver as I am pilot)! I always knew I could call him for anything, any time, and he would be there to help me. We could have never done what we did without him!”
She is also very grateful for the wonderful family property she lives on. “I am so blessed for the foresight and the desire for preservation that my grandfather had,” she says. “He purchased a lot of land that has benefitted his family throughout their lives. I love this land and this home and the lifetime of wonderful family memories that revolve around it! It is very important to Adrian and me to preserve the home and the land that B.V. Rayburn provided. We would like it to remain in its natural state, devoid of concrete and asphalt and buildings, and preserved for animals, birds, and nature lovers!”
Another passion that Rita and Adrian share is training German Shepherd dogs to compete in a sport called Schutzhund, also known as IPO. The sport features competitive trials in tracking, obedience, and protection that are held all over the United States and Europe. The couple’s interest was piqued from the moment they first watched a trial. They had a puppy they were hoping would be able to compete, but they found he was not a good candidate for the sport.
Meanwhile, the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization contacted them about taking one of their female breeding dogs to raise and produce litters of puppies to be trained as guide dogs. The organization also gave them permission to train the dog for Schutzhund. Not only did she produce five litters of guide dog puppies, but she achieved the highest levels in Schutzhund. They later met a German Schutzhund judge in Canada who knew of a dog in Germany that he felt would be a great competitor. The Leddas purchased the dog, and a year later he was on the USA team competing for the World Championship. They have since competed all over the nation and in three world championships—in Hasselt, Belgium; Padova, Italy; and St. Galen, Switzerland. Rita and her dog Happy were first place for the USA and held the record for the highest score from North America for six years. Six team members from over 16 different countries participate in the World Championships.
Because of the fabulous travel opportunities with her job, Rita has been able to travel the world and enjoy many adventures. She has ridden an elephant in Singapore, climbed Mount Fuji in Japan, and hiked the 37-mile Milford Trek in New Zealand. She trained German Shepherds for four months on the German-Swiss-French border, for six weeks in Stuttgart, and for two months in northern Germany near Hanover. She signed up and paid for a six-week stint at the Goethe Institute in Frankfurt to learn German but left after two weeks to search for German Shepherds to buy for friends. So she learned to speak fluent German on her own with audio cassettes and books. Since that first night school experience taking college classes at Centenary, she has also continued to take college classes just about everywhere she has lived for the past 50-plus years and is just a few credits away from a degree. It will be surprising to no one if and when she decides to finish it.
The Leddas started and maintained a Schutzhund club at the homeplace in Carthage for 10 years. Rita says, “It was wonderful! We brought well-known judges here from Germany, and people brought dogs from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arizona to participate in our trials. After breeding for Guide Dogs for the Blind, we began breeding German Shepherds on our own. We bred 37 litters and were very selective in their placements. We have hand delivered puppies everywhere—all over the U.S., even to Alaska, and also to several places in Europe. Many of our pups have become police dogs, service dogs, and one even a drug dog in Afghanistan.”
Another important influences in Rita’s life has been her church, First Christian in Carthage, where she has been going since she was about three years old. “The church was instrumental in the formation of my faith,” she says, “and just very meaningful to me in every way. I went there often with my mother throughout my childhood and was baptized when I was about 15. I have wonderful memories of all the people I knew there and am blessed to still get to see some of those families today. My church continues to be a very important part of my life and now of Adrian’s.”
It appears that there is nothing that this amazing, determined, energetic fireball can’t do, and when she finds something that lights that fire, her drive and passion for it will not let her rest until she has achieved world class status with it. Yet she remains humble and unassuming, reticent to be in any sort of spotlight, preferring to keep a very low profile. The only reason she could be coaxed to be featured here is a desire to possibly inspire some young person with her story. “I want young people to see that they need to get an EDUCATION,” she says. “To stay in school and give themselves an opportunity to mature. To realize that education is something no one can ever take from you! To GET INTO THINGS and find something they can be passionate about. To pay attention to the people who are good influences in their lives and learn from them. To realize that the sky is the limit, that all they need is a big dream and the passion and determination to achieve it!”