Respect for the seldom celebrated man

The odds are good you’ve never heard of Lon Cooper. There’s no reason you would have, really. But you should have. We all should have. At least we should have if life is fair, which it is not.

So working on the theory that being late is better than nothing, allow me to make the introductions.

Lon Cooper is one of the men who did his part when it mattered. It would have been easy to shrug it off, think of himself, and take care of number one. But he didn’t do that. Instead he became an anonymous member of what Tom Brokaw tagged as The Greatest Generation.

Raise a toast to Lon and his peers. They deserve it, even if you’ve never heard of them individually. Collectively, they got us here. And for that we should be eternally grateful.

When World War II rolled around, Lon lived in the quaint little town of, St. Petersburg, Florida. Like so many of his generation, he decided he would volunteer for the service and do his part to preserve the freedom of the western world.

That sounds like hyperbole today. We’ve felt so safe for so long we can easily forget, if we ever even knew, that being free, being able to make your own decisions, live your own life, and do weird things like fly recreationally haven’t always been so easily done. Not in history. Not in the present day, either.

Fortunately for us, when a very bad man popped up intent on doing battle with the forces of good and taking away the freedom we in the western world cherish so much, Lon was one of the men those good forces were made up of.

Blockbuster movies aside, Captain America didn’t wear a mask and carry a round shield in real life. Nope, he wore khakis, a slightly rumpled work shirt, and scuffed shoes. He got up early and enjoyed few creature comforts. He worked hard and put in long hours. He did what had to be done, and he didn’t grouse about it much. And sometimes, he was a she. We forget that too often.

The phrase, “We’re all in this together,” used to be more than just a slogan. It was a way of life.

Like a lot of young men his age, Lon would have liked to fly fighters, or bombers during the war — anything in the action. He wanted to make a difference and leave his mark on the war effort. But alas, Lon had tussled with asthma as a child, and that pretty much ruled him out as a member of the active military.

In those days, giving up and going home wasn’t a particularly popular course of action. So rather than accept defeat Lon slid down to the next line on his to-do list and settled on his number two choice. He became a civilian flight instructor training pilots for the US Army.

You see, Lon never made it into the big show. He never got to point at a newsreel displaying his face and latest exploits as it played at the local Bijou. He quietly went about the business of training young men to fly. When he was done with them, they went on to other assignments flying bigger, faster, more capable machines. Lon did not. He and his students stuck to flying Stearmans over Lakeland, Florida, where they perfected steep turns, lazy 8s, and stall after stall after stall.

It’s a safe bet that many of Lon’s students went on to fly those fighters and bombers he had dreamed of piloting over Europe. They went on to do the work that was deemed important. They got their pictures in the paper, and made the big noise that makes kids dream of doing remarkable things when they grow up. But not Lon. He just saddled up in another Stearman, pointed another young pup to the sky, and led them to a life of purpose and promise.

Lon remained anonymous for the majority of his life — until today.

When 1945 rolled around, the war ended and Lon’s services were no longer needed. So he went back to St. Petersburg where he started out. He raised his family, paid the bills, and worked diligently to make sure his family never saw the sort of poverty he and his peers had experienced first hand during the Great Depression. But Lon didn’t fly again. Not for a long, long time anyway. Not for decades. Building a life was more important, and so he took the hit and gave up his dream in favor of another one that meant even more to him.

You see, flying was never cheap. Sure, we all hear stories about when fuel was 30 a gallon, or you could rent a Cub for $10 an hour. But in 1945 when Lon and his fellow post-war pilots went home, the average salary of a working man was just shy of $2,000 a year. That stark reality tempers the excitement of hearing that a brand new car could be had for barely $1,000, or that the average house was a tad shy of $10.000.

Yep, those stories about P-51 Mustangs being dumped onto the market for as little as $5,000 are true. But it’s not quite as rosy a picture as you might think when you consider that would equate to better than a 50% down-payment on a house.

The average guy is going to have a hard time slipping that one past the wife, I don’t care which era of American history you’re in.

So in the interest of showing respect where respect is due, and having a bit of perspective where it’s needed, let’s all take a moment this year to tip our hats, extend our hand in friendship, and provide a little support where we can for the men and women who got us to where we are today. It’s about time they heard a word or two of encouragement after all these years of sacrifice. We owe them that much at least.

Thank you, Lon. Thank you so much for the life you made possible for the rest of us.

Photos: Lon, on right, presents, Harvey, on left, with his flight certificate. Harvey was a student of the Lodwick School of Aeronautics the same time Lon was an instructor during World War II. 66 years later, Harvey flew Waldo Wright’s Stearman, in a program Lon Cooper helped develop.

Comments

  1. Paul Mains says:

    Thank you Jamie for the tribute to Lon. He has been my father-in-law for just over 39 years now and I can tell you it is not hard to believe that he was a role model for many of the young men that went on to fly for their country. On his 90th birthday we were at Fantasy of Flight to watch him lift off in the Stearman one last time. The grin on his face as he passed us was something to behold.

    • Donna Steele says:

      My husband, Bob and I were friends of Lon and his wife Dorothy. I still live in the same house and I was out walking the neighborhood and walked past Lon’s old house yesterday. I then read this article. Tell Lon “hello” from Me. I have many good memories of he and Dorothy. I was not aware of this past, exciting job that he did during WWII. -Donna Steele

  2. Don Morris says:

    I have been very fortunate to have been a good friend of Lon Cooper for the past 25 years and My wife Alice and her family have known Lon and his family foe more than forty years.
    When Lon sold his electronics business many years ago I was lucky enough to hire him to help my wife and I at our Model Train Store (H&R Trains) While interviewing Lon outside our business Pinellas Park. FL. I realized that Lon and I were both more interested in the aircraft flying overhead than we were in the interview. We became instant friends, and he was the the best employees we ever have had working for us at the store. Lon is an excellent teacher and I became a better business owner thanks to Lon.
    While he worked with us Lon went flying with me all over Florida helping me build Outdoor Garden Railroads for our customers. I think we both enjoyed the flying more than the railroads if the truth were known. Alice and I have taken Lon to the Sun n’ Fun Fly-in every year that we have known him. When I was earning my living as a pilot and flight instructor in Lakeland I actually worked for Les Roberts selling airplanes for him. Les told me about Lon from their early days together at Lodwick field in Lakeland.

    Lon is quite the gentlemen and although he has not flown for a living for many years he is still teaching anyone who will listen about those early days in aviation as a docent at “Fantasy of Flight” in Polk City, FL near Lakeland where he started out teaching new Army pilots well over 70 years ago.
    We looking forward to our time together once again this April at Sun n’ Fun in Lakeland.

  3. Otto Keesling says:

    I can relate to this. Missing the opportunity to fly while in the Air Force I completed my dream after discharge. I will never forget the instructor that taught me so well. Thanks, John Graff where ever you are.

  4. Hal mcclamma says:

    My Dad was Squadron Commander of Civil Air Patrol ( too old to go to war) and I joined him in many flights when I was 10 looking for Stearman that didn’t come home to Lakeland Lodwick. That yellow and blue was pretty easy to spot. Johnny and Les Roberts were there with Lon Cooper as civilian flight instructors and soloed me after the War. They were the most competent and SAFETY MINDED guys I have ever known. Truly the Greatest Generation. How wonderful the memories.

  5. John M. Fletcher says:

    In 1944, I was ten years old and lived on Holly Road in Lakeland.
    My father owned several drug stores and we took Canadian Cadets into our home who were training at the flight school. I remember that Al Lodwick was also known as a race boat owner and driver. I later learned to fly at Roberts Flying Service. (Les & John)
    This early introduction to aviation spurred me enventually seek a career as a pilot where
    I finished up as the chief pilot for a steel mill with an airline transport license and rated on multiple jets as well as Gulfstream turboprops.

  6. Dana Morgenthaler says:

    Thank you for the great story. My father, Bill Morgenthaler, was also an civilian instructor during WWII, at Kratz Field in St. Charles, MO. teaching cadets the basics, and beyond. Without instructors like him, and others, including some women who later went on to become WASP, we would not have had the well-trained pilots who were able to make a difference in the war. So, thank you to all who helped our country during that time, and may there continue to be people of their caliber who inspire the rest of us!

  7. Excellent. Thanks for sharing this story. In this world, the un-celebrated are often more deserving of respect than the famous (or infamous), so it was an honor to “meet” Mr. Cooper.

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