An Unusual Gift
College Gets an Airport From a Woman Who Hates to Travel
MADISON, Ohio — Forty-six years ago, Gretchen Reed was picking someone up from a small airport in Painesville when she first saw Charles Reed, a diehard pilot she knew through family friends. She was 21 and “he was just the ultimate cool,” she says. They were married six months later on June 3, 1966. Two and half years after their 10-minute ceremony, Gretchen, who has always hated traveling, became an aviator, too.
Over time, the Reeds developed a private airport on 130 acres in Madison, Ohio, building two runways and four hangars. Charles was a collector, and he worked tirelessly to restore and repair the 18 vintage airplanes on the property.
Fifteen airplanes are still flyable or easily repairable. Painted with varying greens, yellows, reds, blues and blacks, each seems to have its own personality. The average person could step into the open cockpit of the yellow Baby Great Lakes bi-plane without having to step on the wing first. The nose of the black Interstate L-6 towering next to it in the hangar is painted like a shark’s head. Children who visit call it “The Monster.”
“He [Charles] was just completely motivated by this passion for flying,” Gretchen says. “He lived, breathed and ate airplanes.”
After barely surviving a plane crash in 1979, Charles made weekly visits to hospitals for the next 29 years. He had over 50 surgeries but continued flying until 2006, just two years before he died from a neurological condition.
After his death, Gretchen’s interest in flying dwindled.
“The airplanes and hangars were him,” she says. “The hangar was his doing and represented everything that was him.”
The years of helping Charles fight against his deteriorating health had worn Gretchen down. She told everyone she knew in the aviation community that she was retiring from the skies.
Eighteen Airplanes and a Flying Legacy
But she was determined to carry out their plans to give their collection and the private airport to the community where they had both grown up. It was important to keep the collection together. Gretchen donated the planes and Pheasant Run Airport to Lake Erie College at the end of 2010.
“It’s as close as I can get to being assured it will continue and it is kind of a memorial to my husband,” she says. “
The agreement with the college allows Gretchen to continue to use the vintage airplanes and maintain the estate. Giving back to the community renewed her passion for aviation. Now, at 67, she’s enjoying it more than ever. She is a strong woman who still gives off a youthful energy, but her deep-set, pale blue eyes show the full life she’s lived.
“I’m looking upon the airport now as a kind of legacy to Chuck and something that will open horizons to other people,” she says. “I enjoy making people aware of things that they didn’t know before. I guess I’m just a born teacher.”
Teaching was something Gretchen always knew she wanted to do. She retired from Riverside High School in Painesville in 1995. For 26 of her 30 years as a teacher, she brought her knowledge of flying to the school through a class she developed on the basics of aviation. Gretchen was recognized as a semifinalist for NASA’s Teacher in Space program in 1985. She says, to the best of her knowledge, she was the only woman teaching a high-school aviation class at the time.
Some of her students had never been on a plane before, so Gretchen and Charles would often bring them out to the airport for a ride. Pheasant Run Airport’s manager, Chris Joles, was one of those students.
“I was having trouble in school, but when I took aviation, it all came together for me,” he says.
Once they were in the sky, Gretchen gave Chris a try at the controls. He was a natural. Charles began teaching Chris the skills to fly and work on the mechanics of the planes. He soon became part of the family. Joles, 49, now lives and works on the property maintaining the runways, hangars and planes.
A rock engraved with “Pheasant Run Airport” and a white archway with a country feel welcome visitors to the property. Two hangars, a barn and the house—all white with black shutters—encircle the pond, a focal point of the main part of the estate.
It made Charles nervous to have a lot of people around, but Gretchen enjoys sharing the estate with school groups and family friends. She opens the museum to the public every Sunday from one to five. In the past, she’s hosted charity rides on the property.
“The purpose is to enjoy it and to let other people enjoy it,” Gretchen says. “I’m philanthropically inclined. I’ve been blessed and lucky and I’m still healthy and if you don’t do things for other people, where are you?”
Flying the Past into the Present
Gretchen still flies two of the antique planes. Built in 1943, the Aeronca Champs were used in World War II as spotters, trainers and liaisons. The white mono-plane has a blue stripe down the side and a wooden propeller in front. The old planes require more skill from the pilot because they are less advanced technologically. This adds an element of excitement and challenge for Gretchen who has no interest in flying modern aircraft.
“The older planes are mystical in themselves,” Gretchen says.
The college is brainstorming how it will use the Reeds’ gift. Gretchen hopes the donation will lead to an aviation program at the college. It had one in the 1930s when it was still an all-girls school. Amelia Earhart even came to speak there once.
By making the donation now, Gretchen hopes to be involved in its growth. She is unconcerned with the monetary value of the donation – a multimillion-dollar gift, according to Scott Evans, the vice president for institutional advancement at Lake Erie College.
It’s really about sharing the passion for flying with others.
“Her first love lies in just helping others. People come first. That’s what it’s all about,” Joles says. “We want to share it with generations to come. We want to keep aviation alive. I think [Charles] would be totally ecstatic about it. He would be a little upset he didn’t think of it himself.”
— Alyssa DeGeorge is double majoring in magazine journalism and visual communication design at Kent State University. She says she enjoyed working on this story because “I was able to learn a lot about vintage airplanes and true philanthropy.”