Traveler to world's remote corners took last trip to airport

April 06, 1993|By The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dr. Esther Winkelman lived in a modest home in central Kansas City with plastic flowers. But she was one of the most worldly women on the globe.

At age 86, Dr. Winkelman had visited more than 300 countries, islands and territories and was about to add another remote corner to her list.

Friends warned her that it wasn't safe for a retired woman in her mid-80s to explore the world alone. Her reply was always the same.

"Her standard line was that the most dangerous thing about traveling is the trip to the airport," said Scott C. Gyllenborg, her attorney.

Her words proved to be prophetic.

Esther Winkelman's last trip was to Kansas City International Airport.

On Jan. 17, she had an airline ticket to Cape Town, South Africa. From there, said travel agent John Mullin, she was to board a ship for the island of Tristan da Cunha, one of the few places in the world she had never seen. The ship stops at the island only once a year.

As a friend drove her to the airport, Mr. Gyllenborg said, the car was involved in a traffic accident. Instead of Cape Town, she went to the hospital and she died their March 19.

"Physically, I think her 86 years could not overcome that two months in the hospital," Mr. Mullin said. "It was just ironic that it happened like that."

Dr. Winkelman began practicing medicine in the mid-1930s when few women aspired to medical school and when many people simply wouldn't go to a woman doctor. But with persistence and long hours, she gained a following.

Mr. Gyllenborg was one of her patients, as were his mother and grandmother. He remembers Dr. Winkelman making house calls in her car and leaving the socializing to her husband.

Meanwhile, Dr. Winkelman traveled, soaking up knowledge about prehistoric man and ancient and modern culture. As she put it, she was building up an "annuity of interests."

By December 1991, she had visited all but five of the 309 countries, islands and territories then recognized by the Travelers' Century Club, an organization open to people who have visited 100 countries or more.

She kept trying for more.

In November, Dr. Winkelman boarded a Russian icebreaker to Antarctica. She returned on Christmas Eve with a black eye and a story for Mr. Mullin about the roughness of the sea.

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