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When John Sullivan was still a young boy in grade school, he walked down to what was then an airfield in Kenosha, Wisconsin. That piece of land not far from Lake Michigan belonged to Hart Smith, one of Kenosha's first aviators. Smith was working on his airplane inside of his barn – a former cavalry horse barn – when he spied Sullivan and asked the boy to hand him a can of paint. Sullivan helped him work on his plane, a Curtiss Jenny, for the rest of the afternoon. That fall, Smith took the young boy for a ride in the aircraft. During an interview Mr. Sullivan recalled, "It was my introduction to airplanes and I never got over it."
John Sullivan started flight instruction in 1937, learning the skill from Ruth Harman, the owner of Harman Aviation in Kenosha and the first female stunt pilot in Wisconsin. He bought his first airplane that year, a three passenger biplane. Sullivan flew on anti-submarine patrol for the Navy while stationed in Greenland. After leaving the military in 1945, he worked at the Kenosha Airport until 1950 and then assumed management of the Racine Airport until 1983. His interest in preserving the aviation history of the area prompted him to take numerous photos of pilots and airplanes and to survey pilots from the area. He started the "Breakfast Club" in 1983 for pilots and other fans of aviation, eventually expanding the group to over 60 members.
Mr. Sullivan donated his collection of over 400 photographs, newspaper clippings, and aviator biographies to UW-Parkside in 2009.