Tomah man just can’t keep his head out of the clouds
Ask Gordon “Gordy” Stelter about flying and a big smile will come over his face. “I just love it,” he says. Over the years, his love of flying has provided him a long and storied life in different careers as well as in community service.
Stelter took over responsibility for part of the family farm his senior year of high school in 1952, doing chores in the morning before school. “I told my dad, I’d do it, and he wasn’t going to let me. But his friend said “Why not? It’s not like he can do any worse!” Stelter laughs. He has been on the farm ever since, although his son runs it now. It has been in the family for 135 years.
In 1958, Stelter also started working for the first Tomah radio station, WTMB, doing farm reports. As the farm director, he covered what was going on with various crops and farms in the area. In 1962, John D. Rice of Sparta called him up and asked Stelter to cover the Monroe County Fair, which Stelter did until 1966. He had the opportunity to work with Orion Samuelson from Ontario, WI who went on to national recognition for the syndicated US Farm Report. “When we were done,” Stelter said, “he got to go to Chicago, and I went back to the farm.”
One of the things that Samuelson and Stelter had in common was that they both loved to fly. “It was one of the things we could talk about when we got together,” he said. Stelter earned his pilot license in 1958.
His flying skills met up with his reporting experience when Stelter covered the Fort McCoy fire. It was hard to get information about the fire using traditional reporting methods, so Stelter would fly along the fire, noting efforts and updates, and then send them into the radio station with the noise of the plane behind his voice. His updates made the Associated Press and United Press as well as newspapers country wide.
Stelter was a member of the civil air patrol as well, helping with urgent and emergent situations like the La Crosse flood. In 1966, there was an opening for a part-time county civil defense coordinator. Stelter was one of seven men that interviewed for it. “Some of these guys had military backgrounds behind them. I didn’t think I had a chance in the world competing against these guys,” he said. “I told them I have no military background, just in charge of civil aviation here at the airport, and a little search and rescue team. I don’t know why but they came out at the end and said, ‘Gordy, we’d like you to be our county civil defense coordinator.”
It was a job that Stelter did for another 30 years, retiring in July of 1996. As the county civil defense coordinator, he led the county through preparations and prevention measures during the Cuban Missile Crisis. There were fallout shelters throughout the county, such as the basement in the Tomah City Hall, courthouse and police station, even the Norwalk Tunnel. They are one thousand times safer in the event of radiation. The shelters were stocked with crackers, candy and water so occupants could survive in the event of an attack.
Stelter worked with local fire departments and police departments, attending their meetings and supporting their missions and causes. He also was instrumental in helping start various first responder groups going in the county. Kendall had the first box type ambulance in the county and Sparta and Tomah were right behind.
One of Stelter’s most personally satisfying accomplishments is membership in the Sheriff’s Reserve. In 1966, the federal government started auxiliary police throughout towns and cities in the country to provide extra support to emergency personnel in case of an evacuation or other events. Over the years, the name of the group has changed from the police auxiliary to the Sheriff’s Posse and now the Sheriff’s Reserve. Stelter and fellow member Elroy Olson have been members since its start, and are still active today. The group has 35 current members and is always taking new sign-ups. There is a class going through training right now.
Stelter has maintained his pilot license for 56 years, still flying every chance he gets. The Tomah Flying Club, incorporated in 1968, is one of the oldest flying clubs in the United States. Stelter remembers getting the call asking him to join. “I hadn’t done much flying but I loved everything about it,” he said. “We didn’t have much money then, and the members were asked to help pay back the loan to get it off the ground. It was ten dollars a month so I saved my nickels to do my part.”
Over the last 56 years, Stelter only hit a bird once and has had five emergency landings, none of them very scary. Once, he landed in a hayfield on his way back from a search and rescue mission. The passenger was nervous because of noise from a loose fairing, which didn’t affect flight, but was really loud. They landed in the field, Stelter got his tools out, fixed it and they took off again.
During his time in the civil air patrol, Stelter trained other individuals, ran the program and spent significant time at the Tomah Airport, or Bloyer Field. There is nothing he loves more than sharing the experience of flight with others. “The airport is my second home,” he jokes. “My wife is an airport window.”
Now retired other than his volunteer efforts, Stelter is the Flying Eagle Coordinator at Bloyer Field. The Young Eagles program began in 1997. The program allows youth interested in aviation to experience one flight, for free, with a pilot. Stelter estimates he has flown over 1,900 kids in nearly two decades. “Of that group, probably 5% are in aviation in some way – pilots, mechanics, something like that,” he said.
The Flying Eagle program goes one step beyond the Young Eagles. There are no dues or fees to be part of the Flying Eagles, and allows cadets (7-17 years of age) and adults (18 years and older) to continue to be close to aviation. The group uses the flying club’s planes. The Tomah Flying Club has two aircraft- a two-place Cessna 150 for training and a four-place Cessna 172 for giving rides. Stelter is always looking for a reason to get in the air.
“There’s more flying I want to do,” he says with a smile.