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Philanthropy at Work — A Family Legacy

March 22, 2019 - When a visitor enters the EAA Aviation Museum, they are greeted by the warm face of one of our proud docents each with an amazing story of why they are there. One such docent is John Mellberg, EAA 109395. John’s story begins years ago when his father, Frank, took him along to the RC flying field and John got his hands on a model plane.

"My father would fly control-line models with a few other guys," John said. "Sometimes he would let me take the line, and I flew for a few moments until I got dizzy."

Frank held interesting jobs including work he did on the Norden bombsight in World War II, the first ever automatic transmission for the Ford Motor Company, and eventually the camera for the Surveyor spacecraft. Frank always encouraged his sons to work with their hands whether it was on a car or building a model airplane.

"I remember going to the Douglas Plant in Chicago before it was O’Hare Airport," John said. "It was Air Force Day, and the U.S. Air Force was displaying some of their aircraft. There was a B-36 and even Enola Gay was there. The B-17 Swoose was there as well. My father had a friend with a pass, and my dad and I were escorted into a large building. This building contained many various aircraft from World War II. The one that really stole the show for me was the Horten Wing. I was mesmerized."

John’s brother, Bill, also was bitten by the airplane bug. "He took an avid interest in both model kit building and model rocketry, the rocketry being initially inspired by the video that plays just outside the Eagle Hangar in the Rutan exhibit, showing Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun and their visions of space flight/travel," John said.

That Disney series really captured Bill’s imagination, and later on during his adult career, while working in Washington, D.C., for Fokker Aviation as a sales/marketing specialist, Bill got to meet von Braun at one of the aviation events at the National Air and Space Museum. As his interests in the space program continued, he wrote to all the astronauts and received photos and promo materials from NASA.

Bill eventually became friends with many of the astronauts and was invited to several of the Apollo launches at Cape Canaveral, and he got to be included in the VIP area where dignitaries were allowed to witness the launches. He took his father along as his guest for these launches and again got the chance to meet with von Braun. Eventually, the astronauts learned of Bill’s writing skills, and he became a speechwriter for several of them.

This led to a close personal friendship with astronaut and geologist Jack Schmitt who was on Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon. He evolved into a skilled model kit builder; some of these examples are now entrusted to the EAA Aviation Museum for historic preservation and display. Soon Frank, John, and Bill were taking annual trips to the EAA convention in Rockford.

"EAA was a very important part of our love of aviation," John said.

After Bill died in April 2017, John felt that the EAA Aviation Museum would be a great place for some of his items. A bench in the Eagle Hangar was dedicated in his name and that of the Mellberg family.

"He would be well pleased to know of the nice bench with a plaque recognizing his contributions and support to EAA in the museum’s Eagle Hanger," John said. "He's certainly there in spirit, and his memory and contributions will endure for all to appreciate and enjoy. He was a kind, outgoing, and generous person with friends the world over, and he is sorely missed."

John has donated a large amount of archives that relate to our 1938 Bugatti Model 100 Racer. All of us here at the EAA Aviation Museum are honored to help carry on a proud legacy and work to inspire others through people like Bill, Frank, and John Mellberg.

EAA members who would like to know how their gifts could impact the EAA Aviation Museum can email Ken Strmiska or call him at 920-426-5901.

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