My walk to high school in Summit each day took me past a large brick compound called the New England Village Garden Apartments. The buildings were rectangular and, except for white Colonial door mantels, they were otherwise nondescript.
The village was filled with older people, who wanted to stay in town after unloading their homes. Each day, kids like me would walk by, oblivious to the lives and histories behind those doors, blinded by the self-obsession of youth.
It wasn’t until 16 years later I learned that Ray Brooks, the last surviving World War I flying ace, lived in one of those apartments.
I was in my first year then as a Star-Ledger feature writer, a refugee from the New York tabloid wars, where as a sports columnist, I had my fill of writing about the “heroics” of sports stars.
I wanted to practice a more authentic type of journalism and Ray Brooks was as authentic as it gets -- a genuine American war hero and pioneer of early, dangerous days of aeronautics.
“When you went up, you weren’t sure how you were going to come down,” Brook said, meaning it could just as easily be from German flak as mechanical failure.
Ray Brooks was 94 in 1990, still animated and a great storyteller. And what a story he had, flying high over the fields of France in a bi-plane, taking on German Squadrons in the world’s first aerial dogfights. He defied death and earned an Army Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor as America’s highest and most revered military award.
His story remains my favorite story of my newspaper writing career.
And I owe it all to Jack Elliott, a former Star-Ledger colleague and mentor.
Jack Elliott Schapiro was 94 when he died last November and a memorial service for him will be held this Sunday at 2 p.m. at Signature Flight Support at Morristown Airport.
This is fitting because Jack knew more about those hangars than anyone in New Jersey. For nearly 40 years, his “Wings over New Jersey” column appeared in the Star-Ledger. It started in 1963 and grew with the growth of New Jersey general aviation until he gave it up in 2001.
Mostly, he wrote about people – from the characters you find in the small airport hangars to historic figures like Ray Brooks and Roy LaGrone, one of the Tuskegee airmen, who lived in Somerset until his death at 72 in 1993.
A few weeks ago, I went to the wake of the father of a friend. He was an extraordinary pilot who could fly anything with wings and made a living that way. Among the pictures of him with his family was a Jack Elliott “Wings over New Jersey” column.
It was proof that for the thousands of general aviation workers and small plane hobbyists, Jack Elliott was their voice. And that’s what good journalism is about. Giving voice. And exposing readers to things they normally wouldn’t know about.
There is value in both those things. Jack understood that. He covered the sub-culture of small plane pilots and small airport operators better than anybody.
But what Jack also understood was that behind any door could be a fascinating life story. We call it “human interest” stories and he collected them in a book called “Adventures in Flying” which was released in 2008.
He also generously shared some of his best ones with me.
He put me in touch with Ray Brooks and I had the honor of doing the last interview with the last WW I flying ace. I also had the honor of doing the last interview with Yogi Berra, which was about his experience as a D-Day Rocket boat man, which I only mention here because today is the 75th Anniversary of the Normandy invasion. I see those two honors as equal.
Jack, who lived in Warren, also introduced me to Roy LaGrone and I did a lengthy, retrospective piece about his life and the slice of history he took part in.
Jack arranged me to interview Keith Ferris, who lived in Morris Plains and is a world-renown aviation artist. His 75-foot wide mural “Fortress Under Fire” is the backdrop of the Smithsonian National Air & Space museum WW II exhibit. A second giant mural by Ferris called “The Evolution of Jet Aviation” decorates another museum room.
These people were interesting. Their stories fueled my intellectual curiosity and, I hoped, that of my readers.
Jack Elliott possessed that curiosity and, equally important, the enthusiasm to share it with his readers.
Not many people did it better in those days. Nobody does it better now.
His death left a hole in the industry he treasured but for those he wrote about, and for those, like me, he mentored, he will always be remembered with gratitude.