Hall of Fame Inductee
Paul H. Poberezny
Logging Time With… Paul Poberezny
Looking a bit tired but relaxed in denim jeans and shirt, Paul Poberezny walks into the lobby of the EAA AirVenture Museum, greets us warmly and says that he’s in the doghouse with Audrey. Both recovering from colds, Audrey woke up during the previous night to find Paul “overmedicating” himself on cough syrup. Sheepishly he says, “I don’t think she’s real happy with me right now.”
The comment was just one of many references Paul made to his wife and family during the four hours we spent with him in April. Certainly, when Paul Poberezny talks about the history of EAA, Audrey’s name will be there, but he doesn’t forget the names of others who helped build EAA to where it is today. If you’ve heard Paul speak, or read anything he’s written, you’ve probably heard him say that due to his founding of the EAA back in 1953, he’s made a million - a million friends, that is. It’s not just a cliché; the walls of his private museum at his home in Oshkosh are lined with hundreds of framed photographs of the friends he’s made along the way. Shelves are filled with nearly 150 photo albums, along with an assortment of antique airplane parts, trophies, awards, but here and there, too, you’ll find a surprise. A Cabbage Patch doll that belonged to a granddaughter, plants once near death now flourishing under Paul’s watchful eye (and a grow light given to him by a friend), and the old typewriter where Audrey typed the first 25-30 membership cards during EAA’s formative years.
With son Tom’s capable hands now at the helm, Paul is not as involved with EAA as he once was. As Paul says, “I’m not so much in management, I’m more of a ‘watchdog’ now.” Paul is keeping busy though, with an organization of his own, the Sport Aviation Association. Meant as a grass-roots organization, one that promotes the talents and freedoms to build, restore, and fly aircraft; SAA is over 2000 members strong.
In this interview you’ll find that Paul is keeping busy with a number of projects in addition to the SAA. You’ll learn that when Paul says, “If you don’t love people, they won’t follow you,” it’s not just words; it’s his philosophy. You’ll find too, that life is good for this aviation pioneer.
What plans do you have for the summer?
When we leave here, follow me down, I’ll show you my little office and property - that will tell you what I’m doing this summer, and last summer, (chuckle) and the summer before that. All the land, the grass cutting and manicuring. The hardest thing to do is to cut grass and do it properly. I’ve got four mowers, John Deere’s, and I enjoy doing it. (Pause) I’m going to the (National Aviation) Hall of Fame; they’re getting as many members that are still alive together for a reunion in Dayton, so Audrey and I will go to that. I’ve been involved with the Reno Air Races for 36 years, this year I’ll be a Grand Marshall. I’m invited to speak to 400 retired TWA airline pilots and their spouses while I’m in Reno. June 28 I’m talking to a group in Cincinnati, most are pilots. Then I always go to the Ottumwa Antique Show, kind of a down-to-earth thing. I would like to make one more trip out to Montana on my Harley.
You’ve received many awards, most recently the Wright Memorial Award, you’ve been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, but what means the most to you?
(Pauses, taking a deep breath) Being able to share my love of aviation and people.
Do you have any advice for people contemplating their careers?
I’ve said it before, if you don’t love people, they won’t follow you. I see it in management positions; people won’t follow because they’re cold, straight ahead, not open to suggestions, or not close enough to the people to listen to them. I have a secretary, she does cleaning and painting, been here about 12 years. I called her and told her why I haven’t been to the office. I said, “I just want you to know how much I care for you, because you’re always there. You make sure everything is wonderful.” And I said, “Why do you do all that?” A lot of the fellows here, too, they’ll come and help me on their own, at home. She said, “Because we love you.” It kind of makes you want to cry at times. You can be a good guy. Everybody likes a good guy for a leader, and when the s-*-*-* hits the fan, they want a leader.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’ve got six or seven airplane projects under construction. All of us volunteers, we get together for teaching, having fun and enjoying working with hand and mind. I formed another organization, called the Sport Aviation Association, back in 1970. The idea was put to pasture, but then in 1998 Jimmy Leeward from Ocala, Texas asked me what I was ever going to do with it. I told him I didn’t know if I would ever do anything with it. Then Jimmy said, “Well, here’s $20, I want to be member number one.” His son said, “I want to be member number two.” We had a board of directors meeting and we ended up with about 18 members. By 1999, we had about 770 people who joined; it was all word of mouth. So I put out a little newsletter and a little magazine, on a quarterly basis. Then I didn’t know if I wanted to be obligated to a dues paying member, so I got together with my board, which was Audrey, my daughter Bonnie, Bob Lumley and a couple of others and I said maybe I would consider it if it was on a donation basis, church work, if a person can’t afford it, they will be a member anyway. We decided to do that, and thus far, it’s been doing very well. We have about 21, 23, 24 - hundred members; we have a website. We could do a lot more if we wanted to, but I have to be practical at this time in my life about how much I can spend. Our publication, we don’t carry advertising, it’s all airplane stuff - stories and tips. Our fly-in, we’re going to have our second one at Urbana, Illinois and the turn out looks great. No air show, no commercial exhibits. That’s coming up June 13, 14, and 15. Anyone that’s interested can join. (Smiles) It’s a lot of work for us, but it’s nice. There’s a nice building and I was able to scrounge up a lot of donations of tables and chairs. We had a steak fry last year, and we’ll have it this year. One of my members owns Nebraska Beef, and he offered - he’s again supplying all the steaks. We’ll have brats and sloppy Joes during the day. It’s real family-like.
Tell us about the Fergus Chapel on the EAA grounds and what it means to you. How did the chapel come about?
I go in, and ring the bell. I talk to the people who used to be with us, I play the organ. I read the bible, various sections, and preach it over the radio. (Laughs) Audrey said, “That’s out, don’t do that anymore.”
It goes back to when we were going to build a facility at Burlington. We’re not overly religious or anything, but I always did like something like that. And, way back, my dad, out of old brick when they tore down St. Matthias, built a little chapel in our backyard. We lived out in the sticks then, it was called Ghost Alley, a Catholic cemetery in our backyard, across the street, down a little bit was a Jewish one. I always thought it was kind of neat. When we planned on going to Burlington to build our headquarters there, the church was going to serve also as a board of directors meeting place. During this time, when still at Hales Corners, someone called me and told me that a church up near Cassville, Wisconsin has got a bunch of pews and they’re available to anyone who wants them, so I got a hold of the young preacher-they had built a new church. So (we) went up there with a big truck and he helped me load them on. I stored them in a barn in Burlington. Then we decided that this would be a better location, after all the battles we went through in the community. I dug the lake out, over there, and for that I wanted to raise the land because it was low, so with that setting I thought it would be a nice place to build a chapel, and ah, my cemetery, for Audrey and I. Then, with a front-end loader, I enjoy doing that kind of work, disking and grading and so forth, I took dirt and raised up the mound there. We drew up the plans, and a fellow donated the money to build it. We brought the pews up here, cleaned them up, they were in pretty good shape. I always wanted a fireplace, so we built one. A lot of people said, “Why do you want a fireplace?” Well how many times I’ve sat there in winter, while the preacher is talkin’, watching the people lookin’ at the flames. It’s kind of restful; it adds beauty. It’s a place for warmth and thinking. My daughter Bonnie, her daughter was baptized there, and a lot of weddings there, it’s a nice setting. It’s there for the people. My good friend, John Denver, and I, we spent a lot of time talking there, about life.
Can you share with us a little known story from your aviation history?
During high school I had an old American Eagle biplane, I skipped school and took it for a test flight. I took off and wanted to circle around the high school to impress Audrey. Then the engine started cutting out, so I landed in a field, and here comes a motorcycle cop, Mr. Uebelacker. I’ll never forget him, and I’ll bet he never forgot me, either! He was also the truant officer for West Milwaukee High School. Down to the police station he took me, in his sidecar, about four blocks away. I went back to the high school, and I remember walking through the halls. Audrey saw me, and I looked like a bum; I came from a pretty poor family. I had old bib-overalls on and was all greasy from working on it all day. (Smile) The principal, Mr. Barkley, he had me in his office for another meeting about buzzing the school.
I’ve had so many different experiences. I think about all the flying I did and all the wonderful people. Landing when I forgot to put the gear down, at a benefit air show in Aurora. A bunch of us volunteered for that. All I heard was a bang, then I saw a propeller blade looking at me. I remember Tommy running out, yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, what happened?” I just forgot to put the gear down.
What makes you laugh? What are some of your other interests?
Becker, the TV show. (Chuckle) See, he doesn’t have his cigarettes now. I like Touched by an Angel, I like Westerns and so forth. Most of my time now is reading, reading history, Western history and American history. Last year I read over 2000 chapter newsletters; this year I’ve read over 400 already. I settle back in my chair. And of course I do a lot of writing, mail and all that stuff.
What do you feel are the most important issues facing general aviation today?
You appreciate airports when you’re into aviation. The economics of aviation, you have to be overly dedicated to stay with it. There are 1000’s of pilots walking around with a pilots license who don’t fly anymore. They’re talking about this Sport Pilot Certificate. I would like to see that be successful. The other problem is that we’ve got airport managers who don’t like airplanes at their airports. (He pauses, listens with a discerning ear and says, “That’s a B-17 fly-by,” then continues.) Problems of aircraft ownership, getting to and from the airplane, insurance costs. On my PT-23, I pay $600 a year.
Any comments on Mayor Daley’s actions at Meigs Field?
It speaks well of Chicago in the 1920’s, his actions. (Shakes his head, pauses) It’s terrible.
If we could get together 50 years from now and celebrate the Centennial of EAA, what would you like to see?
I would like to see EAA continue to grow. You have to have a hub to attract a lot of action. It’s the educational aspects that bring people together. It’s family. The family aspect of how we started this and how wonderful things happen, through aviation, through EAA. Right before the Wright Award Ceremony I went to the hospital with diverticulitis. The doctor who examined me said, “We have some commonality. My dad was an EAA Chapter officer out in Omaha and when I was a young lad my dad brought me here, years ago, to the fly-in. I really enjoyed it. When I graduated as a doctor, I wanted to live here. I’ve been here nine years.” Two nurses thanked me, on separate occasions. They worked part-time at the EAA fly-in to earn money while attending nursing school. Working with hand and mind, it took us a while to earn the freedom of bringing men and women together to build airplanes and that’s nice, but that’s not the only thing, if we keep it homespun, we can touch a lot of people’s lives from all over the world.
Paul Poberezny with Rose Dorcey during interview April 2003
(photo by John Dorcey)