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Fifty Years. Five Decades. Half a Century.
By Barbara A. Schmitz
July 25, 2019 - No matter how you write it, it's a long time. Just ask Stacy DeSotel, Pete Eide, and Chuck Swain. The three have made all 50 fly-in conventions at Oshkosh, and don't plan on breaking that streak anytime soon.
EAA doesn't keep records of who attends the annual AirVenture, so the association has no way of knowing how many members have made all fly-in conventions since moving to Oshkosh in 1970. But it's likely not a large number.
Stacy DeSotel was only 5 years old when he attended the first fly-in convention in Oshkosh. And he remembers crying — bawling in fact — when he had to leave.
Stacy says his interest in aviation came from his parents, Sharon and Wayne DeSotel, who came to Oshkosh annually until their health recently started to fail. But Stacy always shared their passion and commitment to the organization and volunteering, so much so that as a college student, he took a summer job with EAA, and then moved permanently from Iowa to Wisconsin. He even worked at EAA full-time for a few years before going back to his first career. He now lives in Menasha, just minutes from Oshkosh.
He doesn't remember much about that first convention, but one thing does stand out. "I was little, but I remember walking around and picking up rocks and putting them on flatbed wagons that were up and down the flightline," he said. The ground had just been leveled for the first convention, and there were a lot of rocks.
The one thing that hasn't changed about AirVenture is the people, and that is what keeps him coming back. "The people here are my second family," he said. "I fell in love with EAA as a kid and became a lifetime member in 1983 as a gift from my parents." He is EAA 220531.
In fact, Paul and Audrey Poberezny knew his parents were living in Iowa when he worked for EAA, so they invited him to come for Thanksgiving with the Poberezny family, including son Tom, who served as EAA's president when Paul retired. Stacy gladly accepted.
"I could listen to Paul talk for hours," he said. "The man amazed me with his stories and I get emotional even thinking of it. Tom and Paul both became major idols of mine."
Pete Eide, EAA 90130, of Cincinnati, has attended 51 consecutive EAA fly-in conventions, including all 50 in Oshkosh.
He said Paul and a small group of friends worked hard to prepare the grounds for Oshkosh's first convention. "It was apparent at the time that the site needed lots of work. It takes time to turn a cornfield into a pristine field of green grass."
"A lot of attendees take for granted the things that exist today — there were no wood buildings, just a few tents," said Pete, who flew for about 50 years after learning how to fly in the military. "There were no cell phones or golf carts. If you wanted to talk to someone, you walked to where they were and then walked back."
But he also remembers the things that are just so "Oshkosh" from throughout the years — the yodeler who would officially start everyone's day with a song over the PA system, the ornithopter that rambled through the grounds with a wingwalker on top, and the donuts. Oh yes, the donuts.
"Actually, the donuts were never particularly good," Pete said. "They were on the greasy side. But it's like high school athletes. The older you get, the better you were."
Pete said he comes back to AirVenture for the friends, and each year he meets new ones. "Unfortunately, I've lost a lot of the old ones in the last few years," he said. "I'm 80 years old; it's unrealistic to think that I will be here too many more years."
One thing that hasn't changed over the years is how Oshkosh residents treat EAA visitors, Pete said. "I've always been treated well by the people of Oshkosh. I've often said that if I could figure out a way to make a living here, I'd move here. I've spent about three years living in Oshkosh, two or three weeks at a time."
2019 is Chuck Swain's 56th consecutive convention. The Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, resident started attending what is now known as EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Rockford in 1963 at the invitation of a neighbor and mentor.
One constant throughout the years has been the dedication of the volunteers, said Chuck, EAA 28215. "The people who volunteer are absolutely spectacular. They blast their chops for this thing. The truth of the matter is that it is the people who bring you back year after year. That's why I come back and camp in the same area; the people around me have become my second family."
He tells a story of driving to Oshkosh and arriving at 7 a.m. June 22, just to register for the same campsite within Camp Scholler. "This year I stood in the rain for 2.5 hours and had the time of my life. It felt like homecoming or a family reunion because I knew one-third of the people in line."
Chuck says he's seen many amazing planes at Oshkosh, such as the Voyager and the Concorde. But he's met just as many amazing people at Oshkosh over the 50 years.
"I befriended a boyhood hero of mine, Scott Crossfield," he said. But he also met Chuck Yeager, who first broke the speed of sound in the Bell X-1, and Bob Gilliland, the first to fly the SR-71 Blackbird. Then there's astronauts Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, or Dick and Burt Rutan, who gave credibility to the homebuilt movement.
"You learn that your heroes are decent people, just like your neighbors," he said.
At the top of that list of decent people was Paul, who set the standard high for all things Oshkosh. Take cleanliness, for example. "If he saw trash on the ground, he would stop his VW that he drove around on the grounds and pick it up," Chuck said. "He set the example and the bar pretty high."