Gerald S. Sharkey, protector of Wright brothers history, dies at 71

Gerald S. Sharkey, a community activist in Dayton, Ohio, who led a successful grass-roots effort to establish a national park in the blighted urban neighborhood where the Wright brothers invented the airplane a century earlier, died April 7 in the suburb of Oakwood. He was 71.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his sister, Mary Anne Sharkey.

Mr. Sharkey, a local government employee and former teacher, began his decades-long campaign with no particular passion for aviation. He was foremost an advocate for his city, which by all accounts had long undervalued its own significance in the history of controlled human flight.

It was in Dayton that Orville and Wilbur Wright, tinkerers who ran bicycle shops and a printing business, designed the first successful powered airplane at the turn of the 20th century.

While Dayton provided a comfortable working environment, it could not offer the gusty winds that the brothers’ rudimentary flying machine needed to stay aloft. For that reason, they took their plane to the dunes of Kitty Hawk on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. There, on Dec. 17, 1903, Orville made history by piloting the flyer on a 12-second trip that covered 120 feet.


Gerald S. Sharkey, a community activist in Dayton, Ohio, who led a decades-long effort to preserve the city’s history of the Wright brothers, died April 7 at 71. (Timothy R. Gaffney/National Aviation Heritage Alliance)

In the following decades, enthusiasts in Dayton and Kitty Hawk tussled unceremoniously over the locales’ respective claims to fame in aviation history. The late astronaut Neil Armstrong, an Ohioan partial to his native state, once remarked that “Ohio had the intellect, and North Carolina had the wind.”

In rallying support for his preservation work in Dayton, Mr. Sharkey overcame local disinterest and neglect dating to 1903. When Orville and Wilbur sent word from Kitty Hawk of their earliest flights — one of which lasted nearly 60 seconds — a Dayton newsman declined to cover the event. “If it had been fifty-seven minutes,” he remarked, “then it might have been a news item.”

In the 1930s, with Orville’s approval and to Dayton’s enduring chagrin, automotive titan Henry Ford bought a Wright home and bicycle shop and moved them to his history park at Greenfield Village in Michigan. The 1903 Wright Flyer was formally donated to what is now the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington in 1948.

By the 1970s, highway construction had destroyed swaths of the neighborhood where the Wrights had lived. Rioting during the civil rights movement left lasting damage. Eventually, an urban development plan called for the area to be leveled.

Mr. Sharkey was credited with leading the effort to change that plan and refocus the city’s attention on the Wright legacy. “We’ve ignored it,” he once told the Chicago Tribune. “We were stupid to have done it, but by God, we’re not going to continue to do it.”

In the early 1980s, Mr. Sharkey helped found Aviation Trail Inc. to connect Wright brothers sites in Dayton. (He said he was inspired by the Freedom Trail, which links Boston landmarks related to the American Revolution.) Among the group’s achievements was the preservation of an old Wright bicycle shop that was slated for demolition.

“We had to fight like hell to save that building,” Mr. Sharkey said. “It was clearly going down.”

He gathered support from the Wright family, local media, a federal district judge and members of Congress to push the legislation that in 1992 established the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. A visitor center and other sites opened in connection with the 2003 centennial of the first flight. The scattered-site park also includes a house where Paul Laurence Dunbar, the noted African-American poet and a Wright family friend, lived.

Tom Crouch, a preeminent Wright brothers historian and senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, said Mr. Sharkey had helped “ensure that what the Wright brothers achieved wouldn’t be forgotten.”

Gerald Shea Sharkey was born on April 18, 1942, in Dayton. His father wrote history books, and his mother was a teacher. “Jerry” Sharkey received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Dayton in 1965 and worked during his county government career as superintendent of a public nursing home.

His first marriage, to the former MaryLou Benjock, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 22 years, Claire Martin Sharkey of Oakwood; two children from his first marriage, Jeff Sharkey and Lisa Parilo, both of Centerville, Ohio; two children from his second marriage, Kevin Sharkey and Cory Sharkey, both of Oakwood; two brothers; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandniece of the Wright brothers, said in an interview that “if not for Jerry, I’m not sure that we would have the beautiful national park that we have today.”

A death notice placed in the Dayton Daily News noted that Mr. Sharkey was an “unlikely aviation enthusiast.” He was afraid of flying.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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