By Dan Lawrence
The first concrete product of the aviation industry in the City of Wichita manifested in 1917 with the manufacture of the single-engine, 60-horsepower Cessna Comet. In subsequent decades, the activities of Lloyd Stearman, Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and other entrepreneurs cemented the city’s identity as the “Air Capital.”
The “Air Capital” remains a central pillar of the community’s identity today. In a former terminal of the Wichita Municipal Airport, the Kansas Aviation Museum has dedicated itself passionately to preserving that story. You can hear the excitement in the voice of Lon Smith, Executive Director for the Kansas Aviation Museum, as he begins to tell it: “In the 1920s,Wichita was what I have come to call the Silicon Valley of aviation. People were coming here, like Clyde Cessna, Howard Beech, and Marry Laird. [At that time] there were just shy of 30 companies building planes in Wichita. [Ever since then], Wichita has been a hotbed for aviation advancement . . . . What we have here is a very unique history. It’s not just aviation history. It's a very unique, specific part of aviation history that doesn't exist anywhere else.”
Against such a backdrop and with such a foundation, The bar’s paternity manifests itself perhaps most pervasively and obviously in the prominent positions that aircraft manufacturers hold in the client lists that the bar’s various firms post on their web sites, and in the many WBA members – Debs McIlhenny, David Rebein, Eldon Boisseau, Ed Hund, Steve Wilson, Rob Lee, and Larry Gurney, to name only a few - in whose purses and wallets a pilot’s license nestles alongside a bar card. Veteran pilots have also long figured prominently in the ranks of the bar – Howard T. Fleeson, for instance, received the Distinguish Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action over France during the First World War, while the Journal of the Kansas Bar Association recently detailed the service of Wichita lawyer Aubrey J. Bradley as a B-17 pilot during the Second World War. And Wichita Bar Members Ron Williams (Stinson, Morrison & Hecker, LLP), and Jack McInteer (Depew, Gillen, Rathbun & McInteer, LC), have dedicated themselves to joining the Kansas Aviation Museum’s mission to chronicle, preserve, and re-tell the history of the Air Capital.
Ron was practically born into the aviation business. “My father’s first job as a young man after he was married and had started raising a family was in Tulsa, at Spartan [College of Aeronautics and Technology]. His job was running the engine test cell. . . . I remember when I was growing up, my mother taking me to his work, where we’d take him his supper. . . . I grew up watching him run those engines.” His father was an aircraft mechanic, a self-taught restoration specialist, and eventually a pilot, Ron recalls. “The first airplane he owned was one that he restored . . . an old Piper A3 or A2. He restored that, and a friend of his in Tulsa helped him to learn to fly. He essentially taught himself and flew that old airplane.” Ron, as might be expected, caught his father’s infectious interest. “I grew up helping him to restore aircraft in the garage.” And, when the United State sentered the Vietnam war, Ron applied his skills as an aircraft mechanic to repair and care for aircraft for the United States Air Force. When he attended college and graduated from law school following his service, in 1977, aviation, and particularly the defense of aircraft manufacturers, soon became part of his practice.
Jack’s roots in Wichita’s aviation industry are just as deep. “I’m not the mechanic, and I’m not the pilot, but I have been deeply involved in the aviation business for a long time,” he related. Shortly after he joined Depew Gillen following his graduation from Washburn in 1972, Jack DeBoer, a client of Depew Gillen, brought a “young guy by the name of Ron Ryan into the office and wanted someone to represent him. I was the youngest associate in the office and I took [the representation].” Eight years later, Jack was the president of Ryan International Airlines, Inc. His ties to that company and to the aviation community in Wichita have persisted ever since.
Ron and Jack now both serve on the Board of Directors for the Kansas Aviation Museum. Fittingly, friendship, not merely marketing, served as the catalyst which gave rise to those relationships. As Ron recalls, “A friend of mine was serving as a volunteer. He said I think you would just love this[, and so] he invited me to an airshow they were having where they had an annual gathering of L19s - bird dogs - which were built here in Wichita by Cessna. Oh, I always loved those airplanes.” Ron remembers that first visit vividly: “I wandered out here for hours and got some photographs, and the autograph of a South Vietnamese pilot who used the L1 to pack his family [out of South Vietnam following the Fall of Saigon]. He flew with his entire family packed into that L19 with him, along with whatever clothes they had on, out to sea and was finally allowed to land on an aircraft carrier. He got himself and his family out and I said ‘I'm going to meet that man.’ And I did. So, it was just such a splendid visit that I told them I'd like to be a volunteer and I was asked very shortly if I'd like to be on the board. And that's been 12 years or so.”
The Kansas Aviation Museum had long been a client of Jack’s. “I’d always helped the Museum with certain legal matters.” But when Jack and others sold Ryan International Airlines, Inc., in 2004, his practice changed. “I had a lot of friends in aviation and I wanted to stay connected with them. When Ron [Ryan] moved out of town, it left sort of a void [at the Kansas Aviation Museum], and I was talking to the director of the museum and it turned into me getting onto the board. It’s one of those things where you your nose into the tent, and you end up going further and further in.”
When I asked Lon about Jack and Ron’s involvement with the Kansas Aviation Museum, his enthusiasm seemed to surpass, if possible, what he displayed when discussing the Museum’s subject with me. “The combination of Jack and Ron on our board is incredibly valuable.” Some of that value is obvious, as Lon pointed out. “It really helps with questions of law, obviously.” Their contributions, however, go beyond simply lawyering. “Ron knows aviation inside and out. On top of everything else, he's been highly devoted to this institution for years,” and Ron and Jack have “shepherded this organization through good times and bad.” Lon even speculated that, without the involvement of WBA members, the Kansas Aviation Museum might no longer exist. “There was a time back in 2000 when this organization was amazingly close to disappearing. [Ron] stuck with it and helped shepherd the organization through that rough patch.” Their involvement, along with that of other board members, has also contributed to the organization’s continuing vitality. “We're really flourishing in a time when a lot of non-profits are floundering. Our contributions are significantly up.”
In keeping with the theme of “Lawyers Giving Back,” I asked Ron and Jack whether some impulse drove their involvement with theKansas Aviation Museum, other than personal interest. Do they believe that it is especially incumbent upon lawyers to “give back” to their communities? Both expressed, unequivocally, that they believe it is. As Jack said, “I believe every lawyer has a duty, an obligation to help the community that he's a party. That means a lot of things. That means helping [charitable] organizations, it means giving pro bono, it means getting involved in the bar, it means helping the judiciary. All those things help make our system of laws work. The ethics rules envision that. They put a heavy burden on lawyers to participate and do pro bono work. And I think most lawyers do.”
Ron, who was recovering from surgery when I spoke to him, agrees. He explained, quite poignantly: “Attorneys take far more than we give. It's so important for attorneys to give back to our communities. The wonderful treatment we get from our communities. All lawyer jokes aside, the general respect and honor that we receive from the people in our communities because of the office we hold as officers of the court and advocates of the law, we are required - we must - give back to our communities from our hearts and our expertise.
"We are blessed, in manifold ways, so that we can bless others. We can't hold onto these things. I've got a lot more days behind me than I have ahead of me. [Illness] makes you think hard. You ask what am I leaving behind? There's not going to be a U-Haul hooked to the bumper of my hearse to take me to the graveyard. I am leaving everything behind, and I don't want to have anything left. I want to give it back. We are talented people, that's how we became lawyers, and we've got to give those talents back.
We must live intentionally for eternity. Not just in our church life, but in our professional life.”
This article original appeared in the December 2011 of the "Bar-o-Meter," the official publication of the Wichita Bar Association.