GREEN: Air Force veteran Robert Williams made a point of stopping at Akron-Canton Airport on his trip from Houston to New York one steamy day in July.
He wasn’t flying. He was driving.
He went out of his way to see the Military Aviation Preservation Society Air Museum, known to locals as “MAPS.” It’s nestled behind a line of trees, atop a hill on the far side of the airport, and consists of an old hangar, a multibay garage and small outbuildings.
Williams, 69, worked on navigation systems for F4 fighters during the Vietnam era, and had stopped to see firsthand this unusual collection of personal memorabilia and nearly 40 aircraft.
“It brings back lots of old memories,” Williams said as he walked among the planes on the scorching tarmac and in the hangar.
Williams is part of a growing migration of the curious, captivated by this 23-year-old, people-centered museum.
From 2009 to 2012, attendance tripled from 6,000 to 18,000.
By mid-August this year, another 18,000 already had found the front gate off Massillon Road in Green.
There is something unusual about this museum.
There is mystery in the volunteers. What drives them?
There is mystery about many of the aircraft, some of which rest quietly in pieces or disrepair. Who was in them? What did they do?
And there is mystery in the Gallery of Heroes. What drove the donors to share such treasured artifacts and reveal stories as their lives approached conclusion?
In the hangar and gift shop, old men wander, or rest in chairs. Some are visiting and have stories to tell; some are volunteers and they, too, have stories to tell.
“Some people think we have spirits here,” said Kim David Kovesci, 60, the museum’s first full-time executive director.
He’s a reflection of the growth: The museum in the last two years has added its first professional staff.
The personal touch
The Gallery of Heroes, whose door is tucked behind a Goodyear blimp gondola, contains a stunning collection of donated memorabilia.
There is Ralph Lynn Jr.’s flight jacket. He was a B-24 pilot in the European operations of World War II, flying 33 missions, including two on D-Day.
The leather bomber jacket is an important part of Lynn’s life, but so is MAPS.
Lynn, 93, volunteers three days a week. He started after his wife, Mary Ellen, died in 2007.
“I am part of a family here,” Lynn said. “I am part of a group of guys that love flying. ... There is a great deal of enjoyment in taking people around and telling them things they don’t know about flying and what it was like in World War II.”
A resident of Perry Township and a retired high school book salesman, he leads visitors through the museum, slipping in his own story of freezing temperatures in the cockpit, so severe that many were frostbitten and could no longer fly.
He wore that jacket on eight missions — and froze — before he started wearing warmer, electrically heated flight suits.
There is a tribute to Adam Parsons, an Akron native who was a WWII pilot and paratrooper and veteran of the Korean War. A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, he founded Curtis Steel & Supply Co., and died in 2006 at the age of 86.
There are German and Japanese items from WWII and tributes to the Pearl Harbor attack, the Tuskegee Airmen and the legendary Rosie the Riveter, who was instrumental in assembling many of the nation’s WWII aircraft.
And there is an emotional tribute to the community’s losses in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One donation in the works is a scrapbook of several hundred pages, a work by World War II veteran Bob Lowry, 89, of Tallmadge. He’s a retired letter carrier.
Lowry, who has no children, is creating a legacy for himself and many others.
He was in a refrigeration unit in the European and Pacific theaters. He kept the troops fed, meanwhile collecting items as he moved along the lines.
“I am hoping somebody can look at it and appreciate it,” Lowry said.
There already is a 5,000-volume research library open to visitors.
A personal experience
Kovesci himself started as a volunteer several years ago by working on an A7E, the very type of jet that he maintained in the Navy as a mechanic and fire-control technician.
For him, the work was therapeutic in many ways.
“My Dad was sick at the time,” he said. “It was my way of relaxing.”
He is a graduate of the University of Akron and Kent State University, worked at Goodyear Aerospace, is an adjunct professor at Kent State University’s Stark Campus business school and worked as director of technology at Archbishop Hoban High School.
He became full-time executive director two years ago, and in July, MAPS added its first education director, Reed Kimball, a retired Army colonel and high school principal from Copley Township.
Kovesci and Kimball volunteer hours beyond their workweeks.
“This is an act of love for both of us,” Kovesci said.
Several years ago, he said, MAPS was financially strapped and there was talk of closing.
That has all changed with the sudden growth in attendance.
“A lot more people know about us,” Kovesci said.
The museum’s spending for 2012 was about $187,000 but its revenues were $232,000.
The two full-time employees together cost the museum less than $75,000 a year.
There are about 550 memberships varying in price from $25 to $50, depending on whether you’re a student, veteran, family or other. Lifetime memberships are $400.
There are 800 people who volunteer, with about 100 as regulars.
They donated 47,600 hours last year, or the equivalent of 23 full-time employees, and that number will be higher this year, Kovesci said.
While most are adults, eager high school students, full of details, wander the facility on weekends to offer technical history and do heavy lifting.
Kovesci said his goal is to spend up to $500,000 over the next five years on improvements, among them roof and parking lot repairs, expansion of the gallery, an elevator and renovations to the second floor for a National Guard room and 200-seat banquet hall.
The museum’s list of aircraft is impressive.
One of the relics is a glider flown in 1908 by William H. Martin of Canton. Martin’s gliders made more than 100 flights. He had a spectacular wreck chronicled in the New York Times, in which he crashed into a fence in front a large crowd, laid still in the wreckage for a short time, then pulled himself out. One of his gliders was displayed alongside the Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian Institution, according to a chronicle of local flight.
Martin’s design was so successful, “the Wright brothers came by to look at it,” Kovesci said.
Many of the planes are owned by private individuals, but some are on loan by the Navy, Air Force, Army or other groups, Kovesci said. While many of the aircraft are restored, several are still being worked on by volunteers.
There are parts from the legendary airships USS Macon, Akron and Shenandoah as well as the German Hindenburg.
Headed for Massillon Road at International Parkway — the boulevard leading to the MAPS front gate — is a fiberglass replica of a P-51 Mustang, a plane that earned its keep as superior to German fighters and an escort for bombing raids over Germany.
The P-51, to be installed on a 12-foot-high perch, will be decorated to represent the Jean Ann II, flown by Stark County resident Robert Withee, who flew about 200 missions in the Pacific operation. The plane is named for his late wife.
Finding reasons to come
Volunteers have lots of reasons.
Matt Oltersdorf, who was found one day working on a Grumman F9 Cougar, a former carrier-based fighter jet, it didn’t matter that the plane saw little action.
“I love airplanes,” said Oltersdorf, 57, who makes the trip from Medina Township.
A retired United Airline pilot, he volunteers several days a week.
The love of flying, he said, is something you never forget.
“It is in your blood and it doesn’t get out,” he said.
Don Block of Jackson Township began to volunteer in his 80s. He was a WWII B-26 Marauder pilot who flew 65 missions over Europe.
“I have never met a greater bunch of fellas,” said Block, now 89. An aeronautical engineer, he worked for Goodyear Aircraft on airships. He leads tours one or two days a week.
Flight and all that was involved with being in the Army Air Corps, he said, stays with you.
“It is a part of your life you never forget,” he said.
North Canton Hoover High School teacher Katelyn Paul, 25, of Cuyahoga Falls, was so impressed on a tour with students that she took her grandfather, Hank Paul, 64, of Garrettsville, as a Father’s Day present.
He was an Air Force pilot in the ’70s and ’80s on an A37, a light attack jet and trainer that saw service during the Vietnam War.
“It is right up his alley,” she said as they visited recently.
And Hank Paul’s reaction: “I didn’t know anything about this.”
Kovesci said the museum is rented out for weddings, banquets and other events. Boy Scouts hold overnight events and can earn aviation merit badges. The fall Scout event, limited to 250, already is full.
Next fall, Stark State College will begin offering an aviation certification program.
About 2,500 students came to the museum last year for various programs.
The museum received grants from the Stark County Community Foundation and Akron Community Foundation to support the U.S. history classes.
The museum has a role to play, Kovesci said.
“You have all these guys who have retired with all this talent. What are they going to do with it when they retire?”
“They have all this background and a lot of them are veterans and they find a home here,” he said.
Kovesci said the hope of the museum is to not only educate the public about the military, but to preserve memories.
“This whole place is about the spirit of these people who saved the world,” he said.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org.