The History of Honor Flight Columbus
The Beginning of Honor Flight Columbus with Bobbi and Bill Richards
Executive Directors of Honor Flight Columbus 2007-2012
Bobbi and Bill Richards heard Earl Morse speak about Honor Flight. They were so moved by the mission they talked all night about being called to this service. Bobbi was a substitute teacher and Bill was an eighth-grade history teacher and Vietnam War Veteran.
Honor Flight Network had several missions departing from Port Columbus when Honor Flight Network was developing. Bobbi and Bill served as Guardians on some of these
missions. Jim McLaughlin (Honor Flight Network board member) asked Bobbi and Bill if they would oversee setting up an Honor Flight hub in Columbus, Ohio. Bobbi and Bill accepted this challenge. Bobbi and Bill’s home became the Honor Flight Columbus office.
In 2009, Honor Flight Columbus filed the paperwork to become a 501(c)3. Honor Flight Columbus became the first Honor Flight hub. The founding board members were hands-on with all the planning to execute the missions. The founding board members were Bobbi and Bill Richards, Lou Borth, Julie Brightwell, Jim Downing, Roger Dyer, Marta Morris, and Ruth Parise.
In the early years, approximately 32 veterans were scheduled for each mission. Commercial flights were used. Only three or four seats could be booked at a time, or the ticket price would increase. It was less expensive to fly direct from Columbus, Ohio to Baltimore, Maryland. One 56-passenger bus escorted the veterans and volunteers for the day. On one occasion, half of the veterans and guardians had to spend the night in Washington, D.C. because seats were not available for the return flight home for everyone.
Every great organization starts with great people and the tenacity to solve problems. They had to develop systems to track information from veterans’ applications and provide meals to arrange to borrow wheelchairs for our veterans. During the early years of Honor Flight Columbus, there were only a few volunteers to help at the airport. Before long, many volunteers could not wait to meet our veterans very early at the airport and welcome them home that evening.
Volunteers worked at the Richards’ home. They entered data, made name tags, called veterans, and created special things for the missions. An exceptionally talented volunteer, Larry Stone, watched Bobbi work. He taught himself how to use the computer software and then created an incredible database that allowed the volunteers to do many tasks by the push of a button which saved hundreds of volunteer hours.
Bobbi, Bill, and the volunteers did countless number of speeches and presentations to inform the community, including veterans, about Honor Flight Columbus. A lot of the donations were made by individuals and children’s fundraisers. In the early years, Bobbi and Bill were within a day of needing to take out a personal loan to fund a mission due to not having enough donations to pay for the expenses. That’s dedication!
As Honor Flight Columbus became known, communities and students volunteered to develop fundraising events. Westerville, Gahanna Lincoln High School, and Olentangy High School’s DECA program were fundraising and informing the community of the Honor Flight Columbus mission.
An Honor Flight Reunion was held in Columbus on December 7, 2008. With last-minute planning, guardians called to invite their veterans. The church where the reunion was held overflowed with people, despite a wicked snowstorm. Due to the dedication of volunteers, as the veterans left the reunion, they found the snow had been removed from their windshields. One veteran came to the reunion from Mansfield. His wife had died on Thanksgiving Day, just a few days earlier. He said he came because he needed to be with family. While taking his Honor Flight, this veteran saw for the first time his son’s name on the Vietnam Wall. That’s what Honor Flight is… a family that supports each other!
The number of veterans waiting to be honored with their Honor Flight was overwhelming. There was a race with time for the World War II veterans to be honored. Honor Flight required more time, so Bobbi retired to manage Honor Flight Columbus. As Honor Flight Columbus grew the living space in Bobbi and Bill’s home became smaller.
In 2012, via connections with Honor Flight Columbus volunteers, John Meyer gave Honor Flight Columbus space for an office in Grandview. This office building allowed Honor Flight Columbus to become more organized and compartmentalized.
Bobbi and Bill Richards stepped back from being the Executive Directors of Honor Flight Columbus in 2012, but continued to volunteer over the next few years.
Honor Flight Columbus October 18, 2008
- Stephen R Brown Photo
Honor Flight Columbus with Kay and Jim Downing
Kay Downing, Executive Director of Honor Flight Columbus 2012-2016
Jim Downing read an article in the Columbus Dispatch about a fundraising campaign for Honor Flight Columbus. Jim reached out to help with this worthy cause. Before long, Bobbi, Bill, Kay and Jim met to discuss Honor Flight Columbus. This meeting changed everyone’s lives and developed deep and caring relationships for veterans and the wonderful volunteers with Honor Flight Columbus and Honor Flight Network.
After that meeting, the Downing’s volunteered to pick up the veteran and guardian t-shirts and oxygen concentrators from the Honor Flight Network office in Springfield, Ohio needed for each Honor Flight Columbus mission. Jim volunteered to call veterans to schedule them for their Honor Flight. Jim and Kay arrived at Port Columbus before each mission and returned to welcome our Veteran’s home.
The wheelchairs for the veterans were provided by a medical company in Columbus. These wheelchairs were delivered to Port Columbus on Friday for the Saturday mission. Jim and Roger Dyer helped unload the wheelchairs and locked them at the USO office. Early Saturday morning before a mission, Kay, Jim and Roger would take the wheelchairs to the ticketing area for the veterans. After a mission, Kay and Jim were at Port Columbus to organize the Welcome Home ceremony. After all the veterans were safely on their way home, Jim and Kay gathered the wheelchairs and locked them up until the next day when they met the medical company at the airport to return the wheelchairs.
When Honor Flight Columbus became its own hub, Kay and Jim were the merchandise coordinators. They ordered and stored the Honor Flight Columbus merchandise in their garage. For each Honor Flight Columbus event, Jim and Kay transported and displayed merchandise for fundraising or speaking engagements.
Jim retired from the Fayette County ODOT in 2007. Kay retired from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction in 2009. In 2012, when Bobbi and Bill Richards were ready to retire from Honor Flight Columbus, Kay and Jim Downing selflessly volunteered to continue Honor Flight’s mission as Executive Director and Board Member, respectively.
With Kay and Jim’s dedication, Honor Flight Columbus continued to grow in every way. The waiting list of Veterans continued to grow as well as the Volunteers and public knowledge of Honor Flight. Kay remembers only one cancelled mission due to a hurricane with 70 mph winds and rain in the Washington DC area.
Due to Jim’s health, in 2016 Jim and Kay needed to reduce the number of hours they volunteered for Honor Flight Columbus. It was time for Honor Flight Columbus to employ people for leadership roles.
Bonnie Sparhawk, Honor Flight Columbus Executive Director (2016-2018)
Carolyn Barger, Assistant Executive Director (2016-2020)
Bonnie Sparhawk graduated from Capital University with a BA in Business Management with a concentration in Marketing. Bonnie also completed Graduate coursework in Museum Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She had been a volunteer with Honor Flight Columbus for several years prior to being hired as the Executive Director.
Carolyn Barger graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in History and received a master’s degree in Secondary Social Studies Education from The Ohio State University. For three years in San Diego, Carolyn taught 9th grade World History and 10th grade American History. After moving to Ohio, she taught 9th grade Global History and 10th grade Advanced Placement US History for five years at Upper Arlington High School in Columbus, OH. Carolyn resigned from teaching to stay home with her children but soon found Honor Flight Columbus.
Carolyn had been a volunteer with Honor Flight Columbus and served on the HFC Board of Directors for several years prior to being hired as the Assistant Executive Director.
Bonnie and Carolyn continued the development of Honor Flight Columbus. Bonnie’s business knowledge helped formalize key components of a mission in a repeatable way in preparation for the future leaders of HFC. The number of volunteers on the HFC Board of Directors increased and the board of directors became more efficient with formalized committees and organized the board candidate recruitment process. As the public heard more about the HFC mission, the number of Volunteers continued to grow as did donations. Bonnie also created operations statistics for analysis, formalized IT security, expanded the social media presence, created an operations manual, and increased communication between the volunteers, veterans and office staff.
In 2016, one of the missions for Honor Flight Columbus was exclusively for women who served in the military. Later in 2016, Honor Flight Columbus opened applications for Vietnam War-era veterans. The first mission for Vietnam War veterans honored 100 purple heart recipients.
To pursue her career goals, in 2018, Bonnie passed the torch to the next executive director of HFC.
Peter MacKenzie, Honor Flight Columbus Executive Director (2018-2021)
Carolyn Barger, Assistant Executive Director (2016-2020)
After high school, Pete MacKenzie enlisted in the United States Army (10th Cavalry) and served honorably on active duty for 2 years as a 19D Armored Reconnaissance Specialist. Pete continued to serve in the Ohio Army National Guard (107th Air Cavalry) for 6 years while attending The Ohio State University where he received a degree in Geological Sciences. Pete worked as a Geologist for many years before accepting the Executive Director role for Honor Flight Columbus.
Pete and Carolyn continued the groundwork from previous Directors. They sought new and creative ways to reduce the length of time the veterans waited to take their mission. This included chartering larger airplanes, flying directly into Regan International Airport thus reducing the time spent on buses, flying two airplanes on one day, and flying on weekdays instead of the traditional Saturday missions.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Honor Flight Columbus waiting list continued to grow. Due to safety, all Honor Flight missions were suspended until August 2021. With the support of the HFC Board of Directors, Honor Flight Columbus flew 10 missions in 11 weeks from August to November 2021. These missions honored almost 1200 veterans with a trip to Washington DC to visit their memorials. This aggressive schedule virtually eliminated the list of veterans waiting to take their mission with Honor Flight Columbus.
Robert Horner III, Honor Flight Columbus Executive Director (2021-2022)
Columbus, Bob accepted the responsibility.
Bob and the staff continued to fine-tune our missions. To allow more time in Washington D.C., all missions flew in and out of Reagan International Airport. Bob implemented cross-training for the staff in operational responsibilities.
Bob Horner graduated with honors from Xavier University. He received his J. D. with honors from The Ohio State University and his MBA also from The Ohio State University. Bob retired as a Senior Vice President, Corporate Legal, for Nationwide Insurance.
Bob Horner had been a supporter of Honor Flight Columbus for many years. He served as Chairperson of the Honor Flight Columbus Board of Directors. When Bob’s talents were needed to lead Honor Flight
Beth Johnson, Honor Flight Columbus Executive Director (2023-present)
Guardian Coordinator for Honor Flight Columbus. The Guardian Coordinator pairs Guardians with Veterans for each mission, plus trains Guardians, and provides information to support the other volunteers. After 3 years of volunteering with HFC, Beth was hired as Office Manager, Guardian, Speaker, and Events Coordinator.
In 2023, Beth was hired as the Honor Flight Columbus Executive Director. She continues the development of HFC, like those who proceeded her. Beth’s organizational skills, work ethic, and endless desire to Honor, Share and Celebrate our nation’s veterans are continuously evident.
Beth attended the Business Office Administration program at Columbus State Community College. She worked as an Executive Assistant for CNM Educational Consulting and later worked as the School Secretary and Assistant for the Curriculum Director for Tree of Life Christian Schools, Beth’s high school alma mater.
In 2016, while working as Office Manager for Indianola Church of Christ, Beth experienced a day with our veterans on an Honor Flight Columbus mission and she found her new passion. Beth volunteered to be the