Chapter 54 founders. Front row Roger Gardner, treasurer, board member Roger Anderson, President Chet Klier, Oscar Ringgold. Back row. Jesse Black, Fred Klokin, Don Keating, Tony Just, Frank Vanek, Gordy Young, Bud Green, Ward Holliday)
For a chapter that has been around as long as EAA Chapter 54, you wouldn't think its start was a failed dream.
In March 1957, when Norman Weston started thinking about organizing a group of people from 3M and Engineering Research Associates around the idea of building an airplane, he had a challenge. The EAA required a minimum of 20 members. It took more than a year to find enough people before the chapter was recognized on May 13, 1958. Thirty-one signatures appeared on the original charter.
They wanted to build a plane. Spoiler alert: They never finished it.
The first meetings were held in Ward Holiday’s office at Elmo Aero, with Weston, who worked for Engineering Research Associates serving as president and Chester Klier serving as vice president. It doesn't appear that Weston stayed long because by May 1960, Klier was the president.
Klier had joined Chapter 54 in January 1959 and served as its president for three years, apparently getting the chapter through a period when it might well have folded. Klier was an old-school aviation buff with an itch to fly. He learned at South St. Paul’s Fleming Field in 1946, after once witnessing Speed Holman performing at an airshow in 1930 in which he looped a Ford Tri-motor over what is now Holman Field.
"Klier the Flyer", as he was known, was well trained for the job. He'd been a top turret gunner in a B-26 bomber and was based in England during World War II. He flew 66 missions (almost 3 tours), shot down a German fighter, and was awarded the Purple Heart, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 11 Air Medals, a European Theater of Operations Medal with two battle stars, and a Unit Citation.
Left to right: Don Keating, Bob Okoneski, President Chet Klier, Bill Wylaw, Jesse Black, Harold Elig, Roger Gardner. May 1960
Don Keating was a member for about three years at the chapter’s inception. He started flying in 1957. “Our first project was for the whole group to build an airplane,” he said. Portions of the plans were assigned to subgroups to build. Some were completed; most were not.
Founder member Thomas Gantzer never wanted to fly or be a pilot. He was interested in the building aspect and several of his friends at 3M wanted to build one as well. He knew how to weld and thought his experience could be put to good use. But he lost interest and remained in the chapter for only about three months. He went on to build race cars instead.
Klier and Oscar Ringgold, a Northwest Airlines mechanic, met at a night class in aircraft gas welding when they decided to build a Skyhopper. Klier designed and built all of the welding jigs for the fuselage and tail.
Ringgold started flying in 1949 when he was 25, soon purchasing an Ercoupe. Though the Skyhopper project was scrapped, he kept plans for a Headwing, Pietenol, Woodstock Glider, and a Monsoon monoplane. As late as the mid-'90s, he still harbored hope that someone would take his plans and turn it into an airplane. No one did. He died in New Brighton in 2009.
Most of the early founders eventually moved on to other endeavors. When Klier moved to Alabama to work on the Apollo moon rocket, EAA founder Paul Poberezny asked him to start a chapter there. He did. EAA Chapter 190 is still going. Weston remained a member until his work as a computer engineer required him to move to Switzerland, Austria, South America, and Europe.
New life for a struggling chapter
Whatever spark existed among those early pioneers stayed alive until new blood could inject new life into the chapter.
That's where Gil Leiter came in.
In 1966, when dues were $5 a year, Leiter signed up. There was no newsletter, no programs, and no chapter activities. Under Gil’s leadership and with the full help and cooperation of chapter members, these things started to occur. He instituted mid-month picnics to encourage all the families of members to be involved.
In June 1968, the first newsletter appeared. One typed page. But it was a start. (See the newsletter)
The state of Minnesota recognized the chapter as a legal corporation on May 13, 1968 after the chapter paid the fee of $2.50. The chapter counted 17 members.
In February 1969, the chapter began meeting at Aero Mechanical facilities at Holman Field.
Members attended the annual EAA national convention in Rockford that year and reported that bad weather resulted in "quite a few forced landings, including one by Otis Smith of Anoka Chapter 237 flying his recently acquired Cliff Mid-wing. After getting a farmer to drive 40 miles for aviation gas, Otis took off and continues to Rockford."
A year later, EAA moved the convention to Oshkosh.
Gil Leiter, meanwhile, introduced something new to the chapter: a logo. It was hand-drawn at the top of the March 1970 newsletter, which he edited.
"The whole idea is to arrive at the general design that appeals to the chapter," he said, adding that the newsletter could use a name, too.
A month later he unveiled "Speed's News." And by fall, it would be printed on chapter letterhead for the first time.
Leiter also introduced mid-month meetings, an informal chapter get-together to view member projects. The first meeting was at Jack Hickey's house on Van Buren where a Flybaby and a Defender restoration project resided.
Leiter's presidential term ended after he propelled the chapter into a new era. Gary Wirth took over but Leiter remained as the newsletter's editor. At the time, the chapter membership numbered 16.
The March 1971 chapter banquet brought EAA royalty to St. Paul. EAA founder Paul Poberezny and his wife, Audrey, along with vice president Ray Scholler and his wife, Bernice, attended to brief members on the EAA's future.
The building of airplanes continued to be the sole focus of the chapter. Gary Wirth introduced the first of a series of hands-on seminars. "He will not become an expert in one day, but he will find that there is nothing really difficult or mysterious about the skill, and he will know that with a little work, he can develop the necessary ability to build an airplane," the newsletter announced.
Twenty-four members were now either building or flying their own airplanes.
Starting in 1972 and continuing until 1994, Chapter 54 presented the Speed Holman Memorial Achievement in Aviation Award. Designed by member Jack Hickey, the trophy carried the name of each recipient as it was passed from recipient to recipient - the Stanley Cup of Aviation.
|1972||G.A. (Gus) Limbach||Devotion to sport aviation movement (pdf)|
|1973||Bernie Pietenpol||Designer of the Air Camper|
|1974||Al Schauss||Builder of aircraft and props|
|1975||Ray Brown||Pioneering aviator|
|1976||H.O. "Shorty" Hall||Aviator and supplier|
|1977||Sherman Booen||Promoted aviation through TV and Radio|
|1978||Weston Farmer||Naval architect and light plane designer|
|1979||Fred Davies||Thirty years of helping aviators|
|1980||Ken Maxwell||30 years of propeller expertise|
|1981||Bill Hansen||Providing guidance to homebuilders|
|1982||James Ladwig||Contributions to sport aviation|
|1983||John Benson||Contributions to EAA 7|
|1984||Libby Parrod||Owners of Cable Airport|
|1985||Ben Wiplinger||Innovative design of aircraft floats|
|1986||Darryl LeMire||Pres., MN Sport Safety Association|
|1987||Frank Pothen||Flight instructor for 56 years|
|1988||Sandy LeMire||Dedication to MN Sport Aviation Asoc.|
|1989||Roger Anderson||Teaching aviation maintenance in Minn.|
|1990||Angelo "Shorty" DePonte||First MN Piper dealer|
|1991||George "Bud" Crockett||Achievement in commercial and private aviation|
|1992||Tom & Kay Doherty||Owners of Forest Lake Airport|
|1993||Dr. George Bolon||Professor of physics at Winona State|
|1994||Andy Detroi||Years of service to aviation safety|
By 1973, when chapter dues were raised to $7.50, the chapter was on a roll as Jack Hickey's term as president began.
Kathleen Magyar of Cottage Grove became the first woman to hold a chapter office as secretary and treasurer. She was the only woman in the chapter, which now had an astounding 40 members. Rosemary Frank, and her husband, Gene, would join the chapter around 1975.
The chapter added almost a dozen new members in 1976, including Jim Anderson, who was in the process of building a Tailwind. Rosemary Frank, meanwhile, started her term as secretary/treasurer.
The question of getting involved in politics was always a touchy subject but not in 1977 when Skip Humphrey authored a tax bill which would impact custom-built and antique aircrafters. Members voted to each pitch in $1 to lobby for a change in the insurance bill. Other EAA chapters in the area joined in, with everyone meeting at Univac in Roseville to stuff mailers to legislators.
The first decades of the chapter were focused almost solely on building airplanes. And the chapter members formed several type clubs technically unaffiliated with Chapter 54 but consisting of its members. In 1977, several members were building airplanes, but were otherwise grounded. They wanted an airplane to fly while they were building.
The Holman Hobos Flying Club was soon born with Chapter 54 member Bob Hilliard inspiring the group to organize, even though he never became an official member.
After checking out several aircraft, it was decided to purchase a Taylorcraft L-2 from a pilot in Elk River, Minn., for $2,500. It was brought home by Bill Schanks as Chapter 54 members christened the plane “Elvira,” the name of Speed Holman’s wife.
Membership in the Hobos cost $200 and the dues were $30 per year with aircraft rental costing $6.25.
Elivira lasted until 1982 when chapter members Gene and Rosemary Frank took her on a last flight to St. Cloud, where she was grounded.
The Hobos were grounded, too, and the club was dormant for several years until EAA Chapter 54 and Holman Hobo’s member Dale Rupp, looking for a project, settled on restoring Elvira. Rupp and Bill Schanks in 1991 revitalized the club, which sold a Piper Colt to finance the restoration of Elvira. Membership and interest grew to five members.
Elvira's return also brought back chapter legend Gil Leiter who had stopped flying and dropped out of Chapter 54. He wanted to work on the L-2, rejoining the chapter in 1993.
Alas, Bill Schanks penned an ode to Elvira in the November 2002 newsletter.
She was borne to fly in the sky so blue
Back in the turmoil of forty-two
In olive drab, the colors she wore
Borne in the family of The Army Air Corps
And then she met a group of ten
Who called themselves The Hobos then
As one by one she nurtured them
And they all knew they had a gem
There was David F. and David G. and Lee and Gene and Bill
There was Raymond W. and Jerry L. and Jimmy O. and Gil
There was also Chuck who took some time to learn about her ways
Who now spends his time in Oshkosh, at Air Academy Days
While at a breakfast in old St. Cloud
I heard a man boast, as he said out loud
I flew your plane, and he began to strut
I flew her east to Connecticut
A timely flight, as his smile did swell
A beautiful flight and all went well
Now her last flight was made alone
With throttle full she headed home
She hit a building and then a tree
A shocking sight for one to see
Now a flight thru air she will never bore
Because Elvira is no more…..
Roger Westerberg was “the kid” in the chapter at the time, one of the first children of existing members to join the chapter. His dream was to build a “Cassutt,” a fast , single place, single engine airplane. After 15 years of building, it flew in November 1988.
The go-go '80s featured plenty of new faces. John and Eleanor Renwick took over the newsletter.
Members voted to move meetings to Lake Elmo Airport in 1987, using former chapter president Ray Wyland's hangar. The dues were raised from $7.50 to $10 per year.
Though the chapter reached a then-record 72 members at the beginning of 1980, by the early '90s times were tough. Two out of every three chapter members were delinquent on dues, which by then were pegged at $15 a year. The chapter remained vibrant as it had little trouble sending a work crew each spring to Oshkosh to prepare for the summer airshow. The chapter also continued a two-decade tradition of hosting an annual banquet for members. But change was in the air.
A shift in focus
As members completed building projects or purchased airplanes, the focus of the chapter began to shift to providing the aviation experience to young people in the community.
The Cassutt, along with Rosemary and Gene Frank’s Breezy, were big draws at was then called “EAA 54 Aviation Days” at Lake Elmo Airport. Unlike today, the idea that people could build their own airplane was unusual. The Cassutt was a hit.
But the Minnesota Department of Transportation threatened this new focus when it instituted a rule requiring pilots to maintain at least $100,000 in insurance per seat, a rule which grounded three of five pilots who volunteered in 1993. That year, Dale Rupp was elected president of the chapter, taking over for George Matheson.
Roger Westerberg describing aerodynamics through touch and see
By 1994, the insurance question resolved Chapter 54 operated its Young Eagles program under the auspices of the national EAA. On June 11th, led by Gene Frank, the first Young Eagles coordinator for the chapter, nine pilots – Dale Rupp, Art Edhlund, Bill Schanks, Al Kupferschmidt, Charles Rolston, Harold Hempler, Dave Fiebiger and Dennis Hoffman ferried the first young people aloft. All 19 kids were Hmong, the children of southeast Asian immigrants. The Hmong were allies of the United States during the Vietnam War but were left behind at refugee camps in Thailand when the war ended
Two months after the first Young Eagles Day, the squadron increased to 13 volunteer pilots, who gave 78 kids their first airplane ride A total of 745 young people took part in the Aviation Day events at the same time.
Chapter President Dick Wicklund addresses the audience at a 1998 anniversary celebration
Membership in the chapter dropped to 44 in 1997, which led the club on a membership drive, netting Jerry Sarracco, a well-known pilot at Lake Elmo who would become a pivotal figure in the chapter. The newsletter, now called simply "EAA Chapter 54 News" expanded to more than seven pages a month.
In 1998, it celebrated its 40th anniversary with a banquet organized in large part by Rosemary Frank, the second woman to join the chapter and hold office. Her impact was powerful. As both chapter secretary and historian, she dutifully chronicled the history of the chapter, and she and member Al Amsden rescued and preserved almost every newsletter and meeting minutes. They tracked down the original members, only one of whom - Jesse Black - was still active in the chapter.In a chapter dominated by men, it was a woman who was the "glue" who'd hold the chapter together.
The club membership numbered about 54.
Not long after, a tradition of Friday night pot luck suppers was suspended, though it would be brought back years later by Rae Kupferschmidt.
In need of a home
In the '90s, efforts started to find a permanent home for the chapter but faded because of the cost and member disinterest. Since the mid-'90s, the chapter had been meeting in the hangar of the Hobos, but they relinquished their hangar to a new owner in 1997.
President Dick Wicklund tried to rally members to find a permanent home -- it was now meeting in a church. "Does the fact that some, or perhaps the majority, of near future meetings will be held away from the airport have any affect (sic) on the functioning of the chapter in helping each and every member as needs arrive?" he wrote. "It should not."
But he was worried that it would.
Al Kupferschmidt, shown in 1998
An attempt to buy and move a small building in 1998 showed some promise. A year later, a committee of Stephen Ogborn, Dave Fiebiger, Jerry Sarracco, John Thomas, Chuck Meacham, Al Kupferschmidt, and Paul Liedl, reported on the teardown of the so-called "Amery Building." But an analysis of the structure and a cost estimate for reconstruction remained to be done. It languished in pieces at Tom Marson's farm and, eventually, the idea fizzled when the former Lake Elmo Aero hangar and building became available.
Bill Schanks, who would serve the chapter as president in the coming new century, was one of those who objected to the effort for a permanent home. He'd write later that he regretted that position because he'd come to realize that the only way the chapter could grow and thrive was with a permanent chapter house.
By year's end, 8 members had dropped out of the chapter. A goal to fill every available chapter office with two names on the ballot (16) failed; only 8 were nominated. President Dick Wicklund challenged what he appeared to think was apathy in the chapter with an article in the newsletter, "How to Kill an Organization."
But 1999 ended on an auspicious note: Dan Bergstrom joined the chapter. It also ended on a disappointing one: after 25 years of service as chapter secretary, Rosemary Frank retired. "Over these past 25 years, Chapter 54 was held together through the dogged determination of Rosemary," Dick Wicklund said. That you're reading this history at all is primarily due to the archiving efforts of Rosemary.
As the old century faded, the new century was greeted with the reality that the housing solution was not a permanent one. The Metropolitan Airports Commission had future plans for the Ed Mayer property, it said.
It didn't matter; a vicious storm wiped out part of the airport, destroyed several planes and buildings, including the structure that was serving as the chapter's home.
This image shows the hardest-hit area of Lake Elmo Airport:
The old Chapter 54 meeting house was roofless (image from Jerry Chapman).
Schanks, now serving as president, led the campaign to find a chapter house. (Read more about the history of the chapter house here)
The chapter newsletter, which never missed a beat from its first 1968 issue, became the chief source of information for chapter members. During the '80s and '90s it was called "Speed's News" and mostly still typed by hand and photocopied.
But now there was something new: the Internet.
Member Scott Olson took the lead in setting up the first Web page in 1999.
In February 2000, the editor raised the possibility of putting the newsletter online to save the approximately $10 per year per member.
Creating its own website, the Chapter was coming face to face with the intersection of old and new.
Some members still wanted a paper copy. A 1999 survey found only 21 members had email addresses. So both a paper and electronic version were produced each month. The first pdf file was posted online in 2002, and a printed version was photocopied and mailed, thanks to the efforts of Art Edhlund.
A few years later, the newsletter - now named The Beacon - went exclusively online. (See an archive of newsletters)
The new decade was good to the Chapter under Schanks. Membership grew back to 80 members, and airplane construction hit a near record level, he said. Schanks served as technical advisor in the chapter.
"If a person were to visit Lake Elmo on a Saturday, that person should start at Fairchild Lane and visit Dennis Hoffman's hangar and then go next door to Jim Anderson's hangar," he wrote. "A person go even farther next door and visit Dan Parker' hangar. A few lanes down the road is Kinner Lane where Paul Leidl's hangar will be found. Also in there somewhere is Jerry Sarracco. The list of airplanes that can be found goes something like this: Midget Mustang, Fairchild 24, Cessna 170, Piper L4, Swift, Cessna T50, Cessna 172, Aeronca L3, Piper Apache, Stits Flutterbug, Cessna 1400, Piper J3, Kitfox Outback, and Cellanca Citabria."
Philosophically, Schanks wanted the chapter to return to "the technical part" of building and restoring aircraft, which he maintained was enshrined in the chapter's charter.
That home was completed as 2001 closed and Schanks' turn as president ended and Dale Rupp's term began.
Member-artist Don Carlson (Don Carlson:Artist in the Air. December 23 newsletter) christened the building with an EAA 54 sign, which still stands today. Dozens of people contributed $4,700 to the project. Their names appeared in the March 2002 newsletter.
For the first time, the chapter had a permanent home. Also for the first time, Chapter 54 had fixed expenses. The chapter dues increased by $5 -- to $25 ---to fix a $2,500 shortfall. Budgeting had come to Chapter 54. The leadership said membership fees should cover the day-to-day costs of the chapter.
The chapter also officially became a 501(c3) organization.
Jerry Sarracco reported at January's meeting he had four potential new members. But a few weeks later, Lake Elmo pilots lost their best friend when the former White Bear police officer died at 68 while walking at Maplewood Mall. You can read tributes to him in the February 2002 newsletter, which was dedicated to Sarracco. Member Bob Collins purchased one of the first plaques on the EAA Memorial Wall in Oshkosh and dedicated it to Sarracco's memory at a ceremony at AirVenture that July.
Meanwhile, Schanks' vision for a more technical focus bore fruit. The newsletter's monthly feature regularly carried more technical items. Jim Montague wrote a column on technical issues. Schanks himself used his monthly space for a deep dive into a member's project. John Renwick's flying adventures over long distances were regularly chronicled. And there were plenty of first flight reports from members, many of whom, like Rupp (pictured in 1994), who was building an RV-6A, had come to adopt the answer "Tuesday" for every person who asked over a decade or so when the project would fly.
Freed from the cost of postage, the chapter's newsletter each month reached a dozen pages at times.
The year 2003, however, brought loss. In April, Gil Leiter, perhaps the most visionary of the chapter's presidents, died while on a Carribean cruise.
"An airplane must eventually come back down because the gas tank can only hold so much fuel," his son said in his eulogy for his dad. "But the spirit is a full tank that never can run dry for the fuel is love. My dad flew his spirit in his little ship on earth for 70 years, steady and unwavered, up to the moment of his passing. On April 12th, my dad said, 'it' time for me to do that.'" (Full eulogy in the May 2003 newsletter)
When Dale Rupp's term as president expired at the end of 2003, making way for Paul Hove's term, it marked the end of one of the most successful presidencies in chapter history. November's treasurer Paul Liedl's report showed the chapter held $10,000.
Hove brought back the private pilot ground school program for 2004 after two successful schools the previous year, and navigated a period of debate over whether the chapter should be involved in politics.
Passing the torch
Over the last 20 years, some of the chapter's most important pioneers have died. Jerry Sarracco, Don Carlson, Gil Leiter, Dale Rupp and founding member Jesse Black included. Increasingly, it was up to younger members to step forward.
It's a recurring theme in the near 70-year history of Chapter 54. Whenever the chapter began to sag, someone joined the chapter who would change its future. Gil Leiter, Gene and Rosemary Franks. Al Kupferschmidt, Dave Fiebiger, Sarracco, Rupp, Schanks, Dan Bergstrom, Renwick, Erickson (See April 2023 Beacon newsletter).
In the last few decades, the chapter's focus has been primarily on Young Eagles. And there were a lot of them. The national EAA chapter honored Al Kupferschmidt, one of the nine original Young Eagles pilots, on the occasion of his flying more than 600 of them. In 2023, he, along with members John Renwick and Dan Bergstrom were honored with lifetime memberships in the chapter.
Betty Seitzer presents a plaque to Dave Fiebiger.
The chapter house was expanded in 2009 and, in 2010, the chapter officially recognized Dave Fiebiger for his contributions. The plaque he was given, hangs still in the clubhouse today.
Far from the chapter's roots, Chet Klier died in 2014 at 91. Though the initial building project that launched Chapter 54 failed, Klier eventually built two experimental airplanes.
The COVID years were not any more kind to Chapter 54 than the rest of the planet.
COVID claimed both Dave Fiebiger and his significant other, Joan, in February 2022. "We both worked on many projects – the pancake grill, the club house, landscaping, trees, the gazebo, going to pick up things like wood, doors, trees, etc.," member Al Kupferschmidt recalled in the Spring 2022 issue of The Beacon. "Dave worked on old radios. He loved to make wire harnesses for your panels on our planes. He had a hangar that was like 'Aircraft Spruce' supply; if you needed a nut, bolt, washer, O-ring, he had it. He loved going to 3M's Outlet Surplus sales and going through all the old equipment. He would find something and bid cheap and would get it and drag it back to his man-cave and make it work like new. Dave stopped flying years ago but his love for the airport and us flying pilots never stopped."
Founding member Jesse Black died later that month in Idaho. He was 91.
Meanwhile, without pancake breakfasts and fly-ins because of the pandemic, the finances of the chapter took a hit and members rallied in 2022 to balance the budget. As COVID eased and things opened up, and with the skill of president Leif Erickson and treasurer Tom Gibbons, the chapter is bouncing back quickly and expects to hold its first public fundraiser -- a corn feed -- in August 2023.
"I think EAA 54 Chapter has a good future ahead," Bergstrom observed. "The new Lake Elmo runways and hangars will bring new pilots and potential members to the Chapter. "
"I'm excited about the chapter's most recent leadership," said lifetime member John Renwick. "It seems revitalized in the last couple of years. Lots of younger people have joined, and they have good new ideas."
And they finish their airplane projects.
This history is assembled through the work of Paul Liedl, Rosemary Frank, Gil Leiter, Tom Gibbons, Bill Schanks, Betty Seitzer, Bob Waldron, Ian Edhlund, Marlon Gunderson, Leif Erickson, Bob Collins, Al Amsden, and John and Eleanor Renwick.