High-Flying Philanthropy

Gretchen Reed loves to fly. She owns not one, not two, but eighteen restored, antique aircraft—many of which are still flown. She’s especially fond of her Aeronca Champion, a classic, two-seat, single-engine, fixed-gear airplane, flown from her own, private airport in northeastern Ohio.

Reed is not only an avid aviatrix. With the gift of her airport and collection to Lake Erie College in Ohio, she has proven herself an avid philanthropist.

Reed first caught the aviation bug from her husband, Chuck, whom she married in 1966. She was an English teacher in Painesville, Ohio, and he was an Air Force veteran of the Korean War who worked for Avery International. (It later became Avery Dennison, perhaps best known for producing mailing labels and other adhesive office supplies.) Chuck held 20 patents in pressure-sensitive materials and applications, including the tabs used to secure disposable diapers.

“Aviation was his whole life,” says Gretchen. When he went on business trips, he flew himself. He encouraged his wife to take up flying, too, and she became a licensed pilot in 1969. Later that year, Gretchen went to the superintendent of the district in which she taught and proposed an aviation class for high school students. She taught that class until her retirement in 1995, introducing more than 600 young people to the pleasures and rigors of flying. When she started the program, she was the country’s only female high school aviation teacher.

In the late 1970s, the Reeds decided to build their own airfield. They bought 68 acres in rural Lake County, Ohio, and cleared land for the east-west grass runway; another grass runway followed in the 1980s. They also built hangars on the property, which they named Pheasant Run Airport. Gretchen moved the high school aviation program to Pheasant Run, and she and Chuck would fly with her students after school and on weekends.

“Restoring and maintaining aircraft was a long-time interest of Chuck’s,” says Gretchen. Pheasant Run allowed him to indulge the hobby. His handiwork is on display in the hangars at Pheasant Run, and includes a Fokker Dr.I, a reproduction of the triplane flown by Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) in World War I; an Interstate L-6, an observation scout plane used by Gen. George S. Patton during World War II; and a Meyers OTW Army trainer produced from 1936 to 1944. The OTW was Chuck’s favorite, Gretchen says. “It’s a very responsive, tandem, open-cockpit old-fashioned airplane. Open-cockpit flying is a whole lot of fun. It sounds just like old airplanes are supposed to sound.” The OTW is so valuable today, Gretchen says, that she stopped flying it after only 35 hours, lest anything happen to it.

When Chuck’s health began to decline, the Reeds started talking about what to do with Pheasant Run and their collection. They had both loved teaching and having visitors at Pheasant Run, and the idea of a museum was appealing. (For example, both were involved with the International Women’s Air and Space Museum in Cleveland, where Gretchen is a trustee.) After Chuck’s death in 2008, Gretchen made concrete plans for the future of Pheasant Run, deciding to give it to Lake Erie College.

Lake Erie College, Reed says, was a “perfect fit” for her gift. Now co-ed, in the 1930s it was the nation’s only women’s college to offer an aviation class; Amelia Earhart visited the campus multiple times. “My initial thinking was that Pheasant Run would become an educational center and an aviation museum,” Reed says. “We’ve been working toward that goal ever since Chuck died.” The hangars are now cleaned up, organized, and ready for visitors.

“Pheasant Run will be first and foremost a center for preserving history,” says Lake Erie president Michael Victor. “But it will be more than that: it will be a center for teaching, and a learning center for aviation and avionics majors.” Reed’s gift—valued at over $3 million—includes additional adjacent acreage on which Lake Erie College hopes to build a longer runway and additional hangars. And Reed’s gift has opened the door for other gifts. “We’ve received interest from other aviation enthusiasts about donating their planes to Lake Erie College to add to the collection,” says Scott Evans, Lake Erie’s vice president for institutional advancement.

And as aviation returns to Lake Erie College, and as students once again take to the air from Pheasant Run, Gretchen Reed will see her and Chuck’s philanthropic vision take flight.

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This article was originally published in Philanthropy‘s Spring 2011 issue.

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