A Pioneering spirit: One of many

By CONNIE SUE WHITE, Flying magazine managing editor and SUN ’n FUN Today volunteer guest writer

At Sun ’n Fun, there are signs everywhere indicating the dedication of what has grown to a force of some 3,000 volunteers who put on a six-day event hosting an estimated 160,000 guests — from the friendly faces of those standing at the ready to greet guests and answer questions, to those driving by in golf carts on their way to their next task, to the dedications inscribed on placards strategically placed on various buildings and benches, and even the names on street signs.

One dedication in particular caught my attention when I was onsite last Saturday morning: The Sun ’n Fun Pioneers Wall outside the Florida Air Museum. Some 230 names adorn the wall, including the name of the man I was scheduled to interview — Paul Hopkins.

Paul is a member of the core group of local aviation enthusiasts, or Pioneers, who 38 years ago literally carved the SUN ’n FUN grounds out of thick palmetto scrub so those who love aviation could have a place to gather a few days each year to share in that camaraderie that all pilots know well. A camaraderie that this steady, gentle-mannered man who turns 78 next month would emphasize the importance of several times as he told me his Sun ’n Fun story later that morning.

“Everyone here loves airplanes, but airplanes are just the mechanism to bring people together,” he said. “Volunteering is the same. It brings people together to plan and accomplish things.”

Mix the two and you have Sun ’n Fun.

Paul’s involvement continued well beyond those beginning years, ultimately landing him at the Florida Air Museum as a docent. It’s here where he is always happy to share his longtime passion for aviation and the history of Sun ’n Fun with guests.

Additionally, Ernie Sanborn, the museum’s vice president, is quick to point out that Paul was instrumental in securing funding for a new — and much needed — air conditioning system for the museum.

“Thanks to Paul’s congeniality and willingness to share his knowledge, what started out as a casual conversation with James Ray during a visit he made to the museum ended up as a $150,000 donation when Mr. Ray later asked Paul what the museum needed the most at that time. Paul told him that we needed new a/c.”

(James C. Ray, as many might already know, is the main benefactor of many youth aviation programs, as well as of the Central Florida Aerospace Academy that opened last year across the street from the museum.)

Those who stop in and visit the Florida Air Museum can visit with Paul and see firsthand his continued dedication and service to airplanes and the people who love them. The Sun ’n Fun Pioneers dedication of the wall outside of the museum is slated for Thursday at 1 p.m.

“The Pioneers embody the spirit of Sun ’n Fun,” says Suzy Eickhoff, volunteer chairman. “They created the event and are still dedicated to it to this day.”

That spirit that came to life nearly four decades ago thanks to the dedication of 230 Pioneers has since been nurtured and fostered by thousands of volunteers over the years.


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