Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Lexington still has close ties to Eastern Airlines

If Frank Lorenzo was the villain in the epic story of Eastern Airlines, Eddie Rickenbacker was the hero.

So I was surprised Wednesday morning to get a call from a man who said, "Did you know that Eddie Rickenbacker's grandson lives in Lexington?"

It was the first of many calls and e-mails I got about my column that day. I had recalled my experience covering the collapse of Eastern Airlines two decades ago as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and lessons that tragedy teaches about today's economic troubles.

I wasn't surprised to hear from many former Eastern employees who are still grieving the airline's loss. For them, it was more of a calling than a job. And that company spirit had its roots with Rickenbacker.

He was America's top flying ace of World War I, a Medal of Honor winner, a race-car driver and entrepreneur. He owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway before raising the money in 1938 to combine several fledging air carriers into what became Eastern Airlines.

For the next 25 years, Rickenbacker built Eastern into one of the world's biggest and most respected airlines, as much as anything through the sheer force of his personality. He was disciplined and demanding — and unlike the corporate raider Lorenzo, who systematically stripped Eastern's assets for profit and to benefit his non-union airlines, Rickenbacker watched every penny and made sure it went toward building Eastern.

"He was as tight as bark on a tree," said Bob Cole, who was Eastern Airlines' station agent in Lexington for 29 years — from 1951 until the airline stopped service to Blue Grass Airport in 1980 after airline deregulation.

Cole never met Rickenbacker, but he saw him once, when the famous war hero came to Lexington in 1946 to speak at the dedication of what was then called Blue Grass Field. "I'll never forget it," said Cole, 86. "He was tough."

Brian Rickenbacker has similar memories of his grandfather, who lived in New York City and would come to his home in New Jersey once a month for a formal Sunday dinner.

"He wasn't a real grandfatherly type," said Rickenbacker, who was 24 when his grandfather died in 1973. "He was more one to offer advice and that sort of thing. He was a no-nonsense kind of a guy. He figured he had made it on his own and other people should, too."

Brian Rickenbacker said his father, David, was one of his grandparents' two adopted sons, both now deceased. Brian moved to Kentucky to attend Centre College in Danville and, like many Centre grads, settled in Lexington, where he has lived for 32 years. He is the construction supervisor at Overbrook Farm and his wife, Betsy, is a respected math teacher and academic team coach in the Fayette County Public Schools.

"He was an interesting guy; I wish I had known him better," Rickenbacker said of his grandfather. "He was somebody you always wanted to live up to."

Rickenbacker said he's not surprised his grandfather was such an inspirational figure to Eastern employees. He was both a great pilot and devoted to the airline's success. As Eastern's chief executive, Eddie Rickenbacker approved all invoices over $50. "He was much more hands-on than today's executives," his grandson said.

Rickenbacker was one of the things about Eastern that attracted Jim Graybill, who in 1961 longed to fly big airliners. "I had written to every airline, but I had my heart set on Eastern," he said.

Graybill, 76, grew up in Shelbyville, soloed in an airplane on his 16th birthday and taught flying before he joined the U.S. Marines and became a drill instructor at Parris Island. He joined Eastern in October 1961 and flew a dozen planes for the airline over the next 28 years.

"I couldn't have asked the boss upstairs to give me a better opportunity, a better job," said Graybill, who worked for years as a "check pilot," making sure other Eastern pilots were proficient in new aircraft. "It was an absolute fun job. I've got a one-track mind, and that's flying."

Graybill's home in Nicholasville looks like an Eastern Airlines museum. Models of Eastern planes are everywhere, and the walls are covered with frames holding his insignia and other memorabilia. He, like Cole, continues his love of flying by volunteering at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky.

Eastern's labor relations with ground workers were contentious for years, but the pilots never went on strike until 1989, when they felt they had no choice. It was clear that Lorenzo was determined to destroy the airline Rickenbacker built and they loved.

"We all got our heads together and said if Lorenzo's going to take us down, we're going to take him down with us. This outfit taught me that," Graybill said as tears welled in his eyes and he pointed toward the Marine drill instructor's sword on his living room wall.