Some people knew him as Henry Ogrodzinski, most people knew him as Henry O, I simply knew him as my uncle.
One of my fondest memories of Henry was the time I spent an entire week in Oshkosh with him. It was the summer of 1987, as I recall, and the first time I had spent any significant time away from home.
My Uncle Henry was the Director of Policy & Planning at EAA and he had invited me to spend time together during the week of the convention. My home, a mere ninety miles south, felt a world away.
Looking back, it is easy to understand why. The fly-in drew a variety of enthusiasts, chapter members, dignitaries, and visitors from around the world. Every person, plane and exhibit hall represented a new adventure.
I was eager, curious, inquisitive and my uncle was there to fan the flames. But he also established a sense of responsibility. You see, I had a very important role. I was there to help him work during the convention and we would be welcoming many important people.
My adventure began very early in the morning as we rode down the flight line. Almost immediately I met the founder of the Experimental Aircraft Association, Mr. Paul Poberezny. He was so great with kids and his wife Audrey was always very welcoming. Although I couldn’t explain it at the time, I had a sense that everyone working at EAA felt like family.
And my uncle, well it seemed like he knew everyone. Even at such a young age I recognized his mastery of public relations. We welcomed Congressmen, Senator Bob Kasten, a group from NASA, and many others.
One of the most exciting experiences that summer was meeting a real astronaut, Robert Lee “Hoot” Gibson. At the time I was a huge fan of Top Gun and I though it was pretty neat to watch Hoot arrive in his T-38 training jet. Later that week my uncle and Hoot surprised me by allowing me to sit in the cockpit and try on his helmet. I felt like a real fighter pilot!
(And who am I kidding, I am still a huge fan of Top Gun)
Hoot and I corresponded for a few years and he continued to encourage me to keep up my grades if I wanted to join NASA. It was such a positive experience that influenced me for years.
My uncle also introduced me to Zeev Sarig and his son Idan. Zeev worked as the Deputy Director at the Ben-Gurion Airport and they lived in Tel-Aviv. It was so amazing to me that I met someone from another country. Idan and I were pen-pals for awhile before losing touch. I’ve always wondered what happened to him.
That summer I learned just how stylish, classy and genuine my uncle was. Even as I child I could see how well liked and loved he was.
Looking back I am pretty sure my uncle played an important role in the growth of EAA and its annual conventions.
I remember missing him greatly as he moved on from EAA to to Gulfstream in Savannah, Georgia. One year when he came back to Milwaukee for Christmas I remember him showing me a picture of his girlfriend Ellen – who would become his wife. I vividly recall talking to her on the phone and telling her how pretty she was. Maybe that gift of charm that Henry had was also a part of me.
He then moved on to become President and CEO of the Dayton Airshow and eventually NASAO. He was always very proud of what he did and was such a champion of the organizations he worked for and aviation in general.
At some point I just started to call him Henry. I remember asking him if that was OK and he didn’t seem to have a problem with it. I always thought that was pretty cool, but I do remember him warning me that I should still make use of the prefix when addressing my aunts.
And as I grew older Henry was able to introduce me to even more new experiences. I’ll never forget the first time he took me to Herbie’s Acee Deucee, a famous local bar in Oshkosh where all the airshow greats would collect after a long day.
It was the first time I had a drink with my uncle, as men. Walking into the bar was like a homecoming. Everyone knew him there and always the gentleman, he introduced me to each of them.
The establishment is rich in character but it seemed to come to life with Henry in there. Of course he ordered a round of drinks and he didn’t sit down. Instead, he proceeded to tell a story.
His stories were masterful and he loved to weave them. They always felt unique and important. Before long his colleagues and friends would be on their second drink as Henry was just getting to the best part of the story. There his drink sat, ice cubes slowly melting.
He had a gift, and I’ve always wanted to tell a story as well as he could.
In his final days I had the opportunity to see him one last time. Weeks earlier I had e-mailed him to ask about one of my favorite stories, that of the French 75. Some of the details have slipped my mind and I was interested in sharing the story of the cocktail with others.
At the time I wasn’t even sure he had seen my e-mail. But upon seeing me he tried very hard to give me the details of the story.
He struggled mightily as he fought against the cancer that advanced so rapidly. We all tried to help him through the story, watching him light up when we got the details right. But I will never forget what he said after struggling so much – “that’s it, no more stories.”
One of the greatest story tellers shared his last story with me.
Going through old photos, some of which I shared here, I found a letter dated January 19, 1994. I always loved receiving a hand-written letter from Henry. In it he wished me a happy birthday and said how proud he was of me. He also shared this…
“Some of my fondest memories will always be of the work you and I did together in Oshkosh.”
Twenty years later he passed away in his sleep on my birthday. I regret not telling him how I felt when I saw him, but I believe he knew how much I cared for him.
My love for Henry is only matched by the void I feel in his absence. Although he never had children of his own, he always made me feel like a son. My love for science, technology, aviation and exploration came from him.
From our days in Oshkosh to our walks at night in the streets of D.C., those memories will always be special to me. Whether it was a piece of history or his tales of being a famous French pilot, I’ll greatly miss his stories.
More than anything, I miss him.
Henry Ogrodzinski is survived by his wife Ellen, his sister Gloria, his brother Zenith, and by the many memories people have of him. Share your story as a comment below, or feel free to send me an e-mail. Personally, I can not think of a better way to memorialize such a gifted story teller. Thank you, and thank you to long-time EAA photographer Jim Koepnick for allowing the use of his photo.