Tales from the Red River Valley

At UND Aerospace, the sense of community and family is strong among the current students and faculty, but even more so among the alumni.  My first opportunity to connect with my interviewee was through my work with the UND Air Race Classic Team when Mr. Leppke sent me a brief message relating his time in the UND Flying Club which preceded the School of Aerospace Sciences.  I have been wanting to share Mr. Leppke’s story for some time, and I was excited when he and I could exchange emails and read his tales from the Red River Valley.

Bob Leppke, a UND alumnus, studied in John Odegard’s first aviation class.  Retired, he lives in Seattle where he enjoys his grandkids and the area’s aviation culture.

Lydia Wiff (LW): Tell me how you ended up at UND.

Bob Leppke (BL): I grew up on a farm southwest of Carrington, North Dakota.  Prior to UND, my education included 8 years in a one room school house close to our family farm and 4 years at the Carrington High School.  In high school, I became interested in business.  Through my older brother, a UND graduate, I became familiar with the university. Because of the strong reputation of the College of Business, I decided to attend UND.

LW: Tell me about your degree program at UND and how you got involved in the Flying Club (precursor to UND Aerospace).

BL: I selected the Business Administration BS/BA degree program in the College of Business.  I enjoyed the business curriculum especially, the courses on management.   The four years went by quickly.   Not only did I gain an education, I gained a wife two years into my college career.

In the spring of my senior year, I needed an elective to fill out the semester. I wanted something different, so I ended up enrolling in the Introduction to Aviation course.  I did not have any aviation experience but always loved airplanes. As a kid, I loved to build model airplanes and watch a neighbor fly his Piper Cub over our farm.

It was the first time the course was offered at UND.  The class included 11 other students and was held in one of the basement rooms in the UND Law building.  I can still remember the first day.    John Odegard, our instructor gave us a summary of what he would cover and what materials we would need.  The goal of the class was to prepare students for the FAA private pilot written exam.  I did not know where it would lead, but I was thrilled with the course material and was especially impressed with John Odegard’s instruction.  I studied harder for this class than the business-related classes and it paid dividends because I ended up with an “A” and passed the FAA exam.

Since I had to stay in Grand Forks for the summer, I talked to John about flight lessons.  I was concerned whether I would have time to complete the requirements for the PPL before I needed to leave Grand Forks for the military.  The Vietnam War was in progress and I ended up being drafted after graduation.  John laid out a schedule that convinced me I could complete the training in time.  I joined the UND Flying Club and scheduled lessons with one of the club instructors.  There is no doubt that John’s enthusiasm had rubbed off.  I could not wait to get started.  At that time the club had a Cessna 150, Piper Cherokee 180 and a Mooney.

LW: Tell me about your flight instructors.

BL: My first flight instructor was Ann Ross Anderson. I met her at the UND Flying Club hanger and she took me on my first flight using the Flying Club’s 1967 Cessna 150 (6232S).    John Odegard’s course had already planted the desire to fly, but after the first flight, I was really hooked.  I reached around 10 hours of dual instruction when Ann told me she accepted a job with the FAA in Grand Rapids, MI and was leaving Grand Forks. During my time with Ann, I learned that she served our country during WWII as a member of the WASP’s (WWII   1942-1944 Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots).  She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.  I was ready for my first solo but Ann felt it would be best to get started with another instructor before I soloed.

My second flight instructor was Col. Lincoln L. White.  He was serving in the US Air Force at the Grand Forks Airbase as a B-52 navigator.  He told me many stories about his love for flying and his time in the military. Because of his military background, he expected perfection in my flying, navigation and knowledge of the airplane.  I looked forward to each lesson with him.   Thankfully, he was able to stay in Grand Forks until I was ready for the PPL check ride.

Five days before I was scheduled to begin my US Army training at FT Lewis, WA, Col. White gave me my last review and scheduled me for the PPL check ride with Elton Lee Barnum.  After an hour and half in the air, Mr. Barnum shook my hand and said I passed.  I was thrilled and could not wait to tell my wife who was waiting in the Club hanger.   I took my wife for a short flight and then called John Odegard to thank him for all the instruction and encouragement.   I could not think of a better way to cap off my time at UND.  That night we left Grand Forks. I did not know at the time that two years later I would be back.

LW: Tell me about your experience interacting with John Odegard.

BL: During the spring semester Introduction to Aviation class, my contact with John was primarily in the classroom.  But something was different.   His passion for aviation was rubbing off.  He made learning fun and brought a high level of enthusiasm to the class.

After I found out that I had passed the FAA written exam, I went to his office to talk to him.  He congratulated me and asked me questions about the exam.  During the discussion, he expressed a disappointment that a number of students had failed the exam.  He told me that he felt he had not included some topics in his instruction.  He did not blame the students.  It was after I completed the course that I started to have more contact with John. His help in getting me started on flight lessons was greatly appreciated.  The relationship changed from instructor to mentor.

During my second year in the Army, I found out that I could get discharged two months early if I went back to college.  The timing was excellent because I could leave the Army with just enough time to start a fall semester.  I had been in contact with John Odegard during my time in the Army and learned that he was able to implement curriculum for a full aviation administration major within the School of Business.  After some back and forth mail and encouragement from John I decided to return to UND.

I left Ft Lewis, Washington August 15th, my last day in the Army and returned to Grand Forks.   It was great to see the expansion of the aviation program.  John had also managed to obtain two new Cessna 150’s. I enrolled in 24 semester hours of junior and senior-level aviation courses over the 70-71 school year.  The classes included Advanced Aeronautics, Air Transportation, Airline Operations, Airport Management, Advanced Instrument, Intro to Air Traffic Control, and Aerospace Law.  I also enrolled in one Advanced Aero Lab and flew 44 hours toward a commercial license.  Classes were held in the rooms on the first floor of Gamble Hall.   John’s office was located next to the classrooms.

It was like coming back home.   I ended up have both John Odegard and Mr. Barnum for instructors.  John taught the airport management class.   I remember two projects that I worked on, one was picking an airport and writing a paper about it.  I picked the new Houston International Airport in TX.  I also built a model of one of the terminal buildings.  The second study was on airport snow removal.   One milestone during the class was John taking us on a tour of the Winnipeg Airport in the UND DC 3.  (No Passports, customs.  Can you imagine what it would take today) It was my first and only ride in a DC3.   Mr.  Barnum taught the Advanced Instrument course.  There were new instructors teaching the other courses.   One instructor would fly to Grand Forks from North Central Airlines in Minneapolis.   He would later open the door for me to interview with North Central Airlines.

Things had changed at the airport.  UND had a small trailer used as a pilot lounge on the west side of the large Quonset hanger. The airport was now controlled by a tower.   The Cessna 150s were tied up outside the Quonset. The DC 3 was parked inside the Quonset.  They also had a maintenance shop in the Quonset and had one mechanic on staff.

As I was getting close to the end of the 1971 spring semester I started looking for a job in aviation.  John helped by creating a booklet with information about those of us that were completing the major.   He also helped arrange an interview at Republic Airline in Minneapolis.

Through the years I have always been grateful for John’s impact on my life during those years at UND.   John’s approach to learning and pursuit of excellence was a major help during my career in software engineering and IT.   The fact that John is the only classroom instructor that I remember from my college days tells a lot.

LW: Where did you end up after graduation and where are you at today?

BL: After adding the Aviation Administration major to my degree I left Grand Forks to look for a position in Airline management.  It was bad timing because the airline industry was in one of its deepest recessions.   I needed work so I fell back on my business major and ended up with an IT management position in Chicago.   I stayed in Chicago for 10 years and then moved to Boston where I managed a software engineering group. After 14 years in Boston I moved to Seattle to work as an IT Project Management Professional until I retired in 2010.

LW: What are some important lessons you learned at UND?

BL: One of the lessons I learned while at UND was to set goals and be persistent in pursuing the goals.  It is interesting that after all the business courses it was the aviation training that added the most valuable aspects in pursuing a successful career.  Being a pilot there is structure and discipline that you learn that is so important in life.   It also is a great confidence builder.   Every time I was faced with something difficult in my career, I would think back to my aviation days at UND.

LW: What have been some of your networking experiences with UND alumni? 

BL: In my business travels, I started to run into aviation graduates and loved to share those early days of aviation at UND with them.  I have enjoyed the Alumni get-together in Seattle where I have met a number of UND aviation graduates.  Through my 40 year career in IT and Software Engineering, I told countless people about the program.  My co-workers in Chicago, Boston, and Seattle all heard about UND Aviation.  If I ran into anyone looking for a career in aviation, I always directed them to UND.

I noticed as the years went by that more people, especially those connected to aviation, knew about the aviation program at UND.   In 2010 I got to know the CEO of Alaska Airlines.   He talked about hiring from UND.   I also have found out that some of the graduates from the air traffic control program are now working in Seattle.

LW What is your advice to UND students and recent graduates?

BL: Do not be afraid to take risks.  Try new things.   All your experiences are building blocks in your career path.  With hard work, you will find success in all that you do.

LW: What’s one thing you’ll always take away from UND?

BL: I have always been proud to have my degree from a university in my home state.  It was a solid stepping stone to start a career.  The aviation training was a plus in that it gave me confidence that I could do new things.  I accomplished more than I could have imagined than when I started college at UND.  Most of this I owe to the aviation training and my relationship with John Odegard.

I have always enjoyed the statement from Leonardo da Vinci.  I have displayed it in my offices over the past 45 years.  “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”   ― Leonardo da Vinci

Image courtesy of Bob Leppke.

 

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