By Pat Maurer
After 14 years as the manager of the Clare Municipal Airport, Dick Acker is hanging up the hat and retiring October 31.
Named Michigan Airport Manager of the Year in 2009 by the Michigan Association of Airport Executives, he is leaving behind a legacy, and shoes that will be hard to fill.
Before he became Clare’s airport manager, for 19 years he worked at, and after his father’s death, was the owner of Acker’s Sales and Service, which was located south of Loomis until it closed.
Acker has been Clare’s airport manager since 1999, but he has been around the airport – and planes for a lot longer than that.
He got his private pilot’s license in 1963 through the Michigan Technical University Flying Club. “I’ve been flying for 50 years,” he said. “It doesn’t seem possible.” He has had a hangar at the airport since he bought his first plane in 1995, and before that had rented a plane, sometimes from Courtney Bauer, who was a former airport manager.
In his time as Airport Manager, Dick said the facility has added many improvements: hangars, a larger runway, a new terminal building and is in the process of building a parallel runway, although he doesn’t take much credit for the accomplishments there.
“This interview is not only about me,” he said. “It is about the Pilots Association and the way they have worked to make things happen at the airport.” He continued, “They were directly involved in bringing the new terminal building into use (around 2000) with their own sweat equity. The terminal building is what it is because of the Pilot’s Association.” There are now about 60 members in the Pilots Association which was formed in 1999 to “improve the communication between the manager, the pilots and the community.”
“They get involved in nearly everything we do out here,” he said.
“I look at myself as just the coordinator of the many efforts around the airport,” he added. “As Airport Manager I water plants, serve ice cream and fill the pop machine. This job is really cool. You never know what the day will bring.”
He said that he also has to give a lot of the credit to his “right-hand man” J.T. LaValley, who for the past three to four years has been his unofficial assistant airport manager. “He has made this job significantly easier for me,” Acker said.
Dick is involved in a bit more of the airport activities than serving pop, ice cream and watering plants. He was president of the Michigan Association of Airport Executives in 2012.
He mentioned some of the other improvements added at the airport over the past decade: the new runway, self-service fuel, seven city-owned hangars that add income to the city coffers. “Seven hangars bring in rental income,” he said.
The Airport also rents property for individually owned hangars (five have been built) and some of the airport property is leased for farming.
Another accomplishment is the addition of the courtesy car that is available at the airport. “We are one of only a few airports in Michigan that provides a courtesy car so pilots can fly in and be able to visit the community while they are here.”
“All the improvements here wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the City Commission and the Clare Department of Public Works,” he added. “They have always supported our projects and recognized the benefits they bring to the community.”
Most of the airport’s improvements have been funded through an annual $150,000 Federal Aviation Association Grant. The FAA provides 90 percent of project costs, the Michigan Office of Aeronautics (through the Michigan Department of Transportation) funds five percent and the City’s local match is just five percent.
“The FAA portion, 90 percent, doesn’t come from local taxes,” Acker said. “That money comes from a portion of both commercial and private airplane fuel sales.” He said the grant will continue to be available through 2015.
The Airport is also the site for many community events including several Fly-In Breakfast events each year, the special airplane rides during Summerfest, the annual Easter Egg Drop, open-air Community Band Concerts and ice cream socials, and library events like the Soar Into Reading programs which are geared toward interesting youngsters in both reading and aviation.
Dick has a few plans for his retirement. First he will continue to be available to help the new airport manager. He said there have already been 20 applications for the position.
He is also planning to work on the 1947 Cessna 120 he is rebuilding from the ground up. “It is almost ready to start putting back together,” he said. “Part of it is here and part is at home.”
Even after he retires, Acker will still take to the air. He will continue to operate his business, Acker Aviation and will keep his current plane, a 1946 Cessna 120, at the airport. “And,” he said, “we will have the time to visit Nicki’s family in Manistique in the Upper Peninsula. We can fly up, or drive.”
He said he is also hoping to spend more time outdoors on the 160 acres he owns with his brother near Loomis.
“When I took the job as airport manager, Ken (Hibl) wanted me to sign a five-year contract. I wasn’t sure about that, so he asked me “how long will you take the job for?’. I told him I would stay as long as it was fun, and that’s exactly what is in my contract – ‘for as long as the job is fun’.”
“For fourteen years it has always been fun,” he said.