Friday, December 18, 2020

Decades-old promise from former student finally takes flight for 88-year-old Gary, Indiana, educator

Henry Jones, 88, of Gary, waves from the back seat of a Piper Warrior piloted by Otho Lyles III, on the left, and Tony Rose on December 9th. 2020.

Tony Rose, of Valparaiso, is a retired teacher and a licensed pilot for more than 20 years who now teaches aviation for Region Flyers.

Henry Jones looked out his tiny window of the Piper Warrior. He smiled through his light blue face mask and squinted his eyes when the aircraft took off into the bright December sky.

Once the plane reached its cruising altitude, about 4,000 feet, the 88-year-old retired teacher glanced over to the co-pilot and wandered off into vivid clear memories from their past.

In 1962, Otho Lyles III was a fourth-grade student at Banneker Elementary School in Gary. Jones was Lyles’ first male teacher in school. He would later become a second father in his life.

Lyles’ father was a prominent business owner in the Steel City who also took flying lessons. He would invite his son to join him on a few flights. Young Otho never forgot the feeling of flying into the heavens on two wings and a blessed prayer.

This first experience of air flight, at any age, is best captured in a quote that’s wrongly attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you long to return.

Jones experienced similar feelings of wonderment when he took flying demonstration lessons as a much younger man in college, thanks to the GI Bill. He hoped to continue those lessons to someday earn a pilot’s license, but he couldn’t afford the time or money while working as an educator for more than 40 years.

Still, he never forgot the feeling of taking off and seeing the world from an aerial perspective.

The years peeled away. Jones kept teaching and also kept in touch with Lyles’ family. Jones learned that his bright, attentive former student had earned his wings as a licensed pilot. This pleased Jones to no end. He always had such a great respect for the thrill of air flight. He couldn’t believe his former student possessed this hard-earned privilege.

Whenever Jones would see Lyles, he told him, “I’d like to fly with you someday.”

Lyles, a former member of the Gary Airport Authority Board, promised to make it happen. Someday.

Tony Rose was a student teacher when he first met Lyles, a senior at the same Gary school. The two men kept in touch through the years, later working together in local radio. Rose, who now lives in Valparaiso, is a product of the Gary schools and a retired teacher. He’s also a licensed pilot for more than 20 years who now teaches aviation for Region Flyers.

Lyles, who lives in Arizona, recently contacted Rose with an idea that’s been tapping him on the shoulder for decades. He asked Rose if he could help him finally fulfill his promise to Jones, whom Rose had never met.

Earlier this month, Lyles planned on driving to Gary to help his sister move. While in the area, he hoped to visit with Jones and drive him to the Porter County Airport, where Rose would be waiting with a Piper Warrior airplane. Rose was happy to co-pilot his friend’s old promise.

On a bright and clear Wednesday, the two men helped Jones into the back seat of the aircraft, a small plane designed for general aviation and flight training. It’s a low-wing plane, meaning its wings are attached toward the bottom of the fuselage rather than the top, similar to a Cessna 172, which Lyles once owned.

The two pilots settled into their seats. Jones, in the back seat, adjusted his headset so he could communicate with them. They took off without a hitch. It was a smooth 30-minute flight.

They flew over the Lake Michigan shoreline and across Northwest Indiana, near the outskirts of the city where they once learned about life and teaching and piloting. Jones proudly pointed out landmarks and highways below on the ground.

He was born in Mississippi, schooled in Memphis, but Gary has been his home for most of his life. Seeing it from the sky is so much more enthralling than from the ground. It can be like seeing your entire life from a heightened vantage point.

Jones wandered off again into his clear-as-day memories. He remembered Lyles, who’s now 68, as a young boy and a young man. He recalled their later chats at family get-togethers.

“When are we going up?” Jones would ask with a smile.

“Someday,” Lyles would reply with a chuckle.

And now here they were, flying together through the friendliest of skies at an airspeed of 110 knots.

“Finally,” Jones told me.

“The experience is something to appreciate for the rest of my life,” he said. “It makes me feel like the work I did as a teacher and mentor was not forgotten by this young man. It’s so rewarding to be remembered by former students.”

Rose said, “As a retired teacher, I found it heartwarming that a former student would drive for over two days from Phoenix to Gary to fulfill a promise to his old teacher.”

Lyles said. “I just didn’t want to let him down, even after all these years. Plus, I wanted to finally get this off my conscience.”

After the plane landed, Jones told me, “Otho never forgot his promise to me. And I guess I never forgot it, either. Just like I’ll never forget this airplane ride.”