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John Gussenhoven bought a Harley-Davidson, learned to ride it proficiently, and then marked his route with a bold “X” across a map of the 48 states. (Jim Wark)

Finding America's Heart by Harley

Wealthy businessman John Gussenhoven pledged his fortunes to assist those who helped him on his journey across America

smithsonian.com

Other beneficiaries of the trust include a former smokejumper who had developed asthma; a Florida woman who was working two jobs to support her dream of attending nursing school; and a young dance teacher who dedicates herself to helping kids succeed in after-school programs in a very tough middle-school environment. All were people who had befriended Gussenhoven along the line.

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Perhaps the best illustration of Gussenhoven’s quiet support comes from his old flying teacher from Tulsa, Carl Snow. The gesture was so moving that neither talks about it without choking up.

Snow’s parents came up during the Depression, which hit Oklahomans harder than most. They found work during the war at Douglas Aircraft in Tulsa, which was churning out B-24 bombers. “One worked on the day shift, one on the night shift—they would pass each other, coming and going—so I’m not sure how I ever got here,” Snow says, chuckling. But they were proud to do their part. Snow’s father had security clearance to work on the plane’s top-secret Norden bombsight, and he had some good times, too. “He would talk fondly about how the fellas would shoot craps in the middle of the night in the belly of this B-24 that they were building, out on the ramp, in the rain,” Snow says.

Snow knew he wanted to fly planes from the age of six. By his early 20s, he was already landing Lear jets in dangerous oil exploration sites like the North Slope of Alaska. He had aviation in his blood, and developed what he calls “warbird fever,” a love of World War II aircraft and history.

He lost his mother to Alzheimer’s in 1989 after a five-year battle “that just about brought me to my knees,” Snow says. “I thought, I can only do one of these. I got about a six-to eight year break before Dad developed Parkinson’s disease and I had to do a five-year downhill run with him.”

The Depression left a mark on a lot of men of his father’s generation, Snow says. “They’re hard, hard, hard. They somehow got through that by just being gut-hard. They’re not going to tell you they loved you. The only time I ever hugged my dad was the night Mom passed away, and I got there first, so when he got there I hugged him and told him she was gone. And so, because Dad had that toughness about him as he went down, it was really hard to manage. He was fighting the disease, he was fighting having to do things he didn’t want to do, and it created some unpleasant memories.”

Gussenhoven understood; he had recently lost his own dad, and he knew how important it was to focus on the good memories, and try to put the painful ones behind you. He thought for a long time about what he might do to help his friend. And he hatched a plan.

He called an outfit called the Commemorative Air Force, and asked them if they had a B-24 somewhere. Turned out they had one that toured at air shows, and it just happened to be Riverside Airport, near Snow’s residence in Bixby, just south of Tulsa. So John made arrangements for Carl and his family to walk out on the tarmac and be greeted by the B-24 crew. That’s what he told Carl. But there was more to it.

The crew invited the Snow family aboard for what promised to be a quick takeoff and landing in the historic plane, Carl remembers. “But pretty quick it became apparent that, well, we weren’t just going around the airport traffic pattern, because we’ve left the pattern. Then the pilot invites me to get up and get in the front seat, and it’s dawning on me that this is not going to be a five-minute deal. We’re goin’ flying.”

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