At the age of 85, Jim Thayer ’54 of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, still is flying high with life. For the past 18 years, he has been a docent at the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, greeting visitors from around the world and giving tours among the 200 historic aircraft on view.
The week of July 28 will be the busiest of the year for the museum, when the annual EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, a large air show, brings 10,000 aircraft and a half-million visitors to Oshkosh.
“During the last week in July, Wittman Field is the busiest airport in the world,” Thayer says. “EAA is a fine organization dedicated to flying. I am with good people. I’m not a pilot, but I enjoy airplanes and I know quite a lot about them. For business, I have flown all over the free world and have a million air miles. I got to fly a plane for about 15 minutes once when I was bringing a customer up from Nebraska.”
After graduating from North Fond du Lac High School, Thayer worked for a few years at Kiekhaefer Corp., an outdoor motor company in Fond du Lac. But he realized he didn’t want a factory job all of his life and decided to go back to school.
At the age of 21, he entered Ripon College as a freshman, served as junior class president and the student council president and helped establish the first student court at the College. “Officials at the College could depend upon us to take care of minor disciplinary problems,” he says.
Thayer fondly recalls his roommate, the late Frank Bonfiglio ’56, and his affectionate Italian family from Milwaukee. Bonfiglio got into a bit of trouble when he participated in a prank at Lawrence University. He and accomplices painted their library columns Ripon red. Thayer, as student council president, was called in to President Clark Kuebler’s office and asked to deliver a check to Lawrence to cover damages.
Thayer was able to talk President Kuebler out of suspending Bonfiglio over the incident.
“Frank’s dad later came to our room at Ripon and asked his son, ‘Who is the one who kept you in college?’ He said, ‘Jim Thayer, there.’ And his dad gave me a big Italian bear hug and lifted me right off the floor.” He says Bonfiglio later became the maître‘d at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.
Thayer majored in economics and also was in the ROTC at Ripon. He graduated with the rank of second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and then served for three years in Germany. After returning to Wisconsin, he was employed by Speed Queen, an appliance manufacturer based in Ripon, Wisconsin, for 37 years.
He worked in the sales department in both Ripon and Nebraska City, Nebraska, eventually serving as sales manager and vice president of field sales. “We had one of the best sales training programs in the industry,” he says. “You have to try to see the problem from the customer’s viewpoint. The product is the solution. You’re trying to sell them a solution.”
He later ran his own company conducting sales training meetings for the appliance industry.
Thayer and a Speed Queen colleague both retired to Arizona. “Then we started to have grandchildren back in Wisconsin,” he says. He returned to Wisconsin, and at a lunch meeting his friend asked him, “So what are you going to do in your retirement?” Thayer didn’t have an idea.
“You’ll want to try EAA,” his friend said. “They’re a fantastic organization.”
Thayer waited for two years, then “the rest is history,” he says.
Thayer works anywhere from one day a week to several days. He still uses his training skills when he helps train new groups of docents for the museum. “All the docents are volunteers,” he says. “It is a pleasure, but it’s an active thing. I see friends come in from Australia, Germany, South America and every state in the union. Some have been going to the convention for 18 to 20 years. They have good memories, and they remember me.”
Thayer says he is having the time of his life. He still mows his own lawn, washes his car and does most of the cooking at home. He once worked as a restaurant. “My wife, Phyllis, brought up five kids, and when I retired I asked her, ‘Will you let me do the cooking?’ She said, ‘That would be wonderful,’ ” Thayer says.
“I keep very active,” he says. “I’m better and happier when I’m active. I enjoyed Ripon College very much. It was a wonderful education with great instructors. The small classes really appealed to me.”