Member Perspective

Paying it forward

May 1, 2010

AOPA Foundation President Karen Gebhart joined retailer Joshn Nordstrom in his de Havilland Beaver in Seattle for a seaplane flight over the gorgeous land- and seascape. AOPA Foundation President Karen Gebhart joined retailer Joshn Nordstrom in his de Havilland Beaver in Seattle for a seaplane flight over the gorgeous land- and seascape.

AOPA Foundation President Karen Gebhart has served AOPA in many roles in her 20-year career with the association. She and her husband, Ray, are both pilots and enjoy flying around the country meeting members.

There are many versions of “God’s country,” and even more individuals who believe their patch of grass and sky qualifies. But for John Nordstom, it’s here in the cockpit of a de Havilland Beaver flying over the sapphire blue waters of the Pacific Northwest.

My husband, Ray, and I had the opportunity to fly with John in his beloved Beaver, and I even took the controls (John did not let me land on the lakes, however; he kept saying, “They’re glassy, they’re glassy”).

“It’s probably the most dangerous time to land a seaplane, when it’s glassy,” he explained later as we talked about his flying. This unassuming seaplane pilot—the grandson of a Swedish immigrant who made his fortune in a gold mine in Alaska and parlayed it into a successful shoe store chain, which John himself then developed into the retail giant that Nordstrom’s is today—didn’t even take his first lesson until he was in his fifties.

“I grew up on Lake Washington and watched the seaplanes from Kenmore [Air] fly every morning—not before 7 a.m. on weekdays and 8:30 a.m. on weekends—but I was a retailer and my busy time was always when everyone else was having fun,” he says. “When I started to think about retiring, I wanted something that would grab me.”

John calls Kenmore Air a “little jewel,” and this home to Beavers, Bellancas, Otters, and Caravans is where he learned to fly. “And I found myself just loving it,” he says. Now, he and his wife of 51 years, Sally, and their son and son-in-law are flying Beavers in the Northwest and at their winter home in California.

Nordstrom is the first member of the AOPA President’s Council, invited to the council by AOPA’s past president, Phil Boyer. The council was formed to help shape and launch The AOPA Foundation, which was chartered in 2006. Meeting John and Sally was a highlight of my first few months in my new role as president of The AOPA Foundation. The Foundation’s goals are funding efforts to preserve airports, improve the image of GA, provide pilot safety and education, and increase the pilot population—major initiatives that are critical to general aviation. These initiatives take special funding.

I like to tell this story about my visit to the Pacific Northwest: I asked pilots gathered in a room to set aside their business agendas and focus on aviation; to tell me what matters. Three hours later we were still talking about aviation. Their message: We’re pilots, we’re passionate, we care deeply about aviation. And it’s about paying it forward. Whether it’s $50 or $5 million it’s doing what you can do to protect the future.

What matters to John Nordstrom is protecting the freedom to fly in his “God’s country.”

“We need to keep the lakes and rivers open,” he says. “And we need to ensure that GA’s image is not besmirched.”

Karen Gebhart is a private pilot who earned her certificate in 1998. E-mail the author at karen.gebhart@aopa.org.


The AOPA Foundation, Inc.

The AOPA Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable, educational, and scientific organization, educates the public on the value of general aviation. The AOPA Foundation works to improve aviation safety, preserve and improve community airports, and encourages learning to fly for career and personal benefit—all in the interest of keeping pilots safe and safeguarding the future of general aviation in America. Please visit the Web site to learn more.