Middleburg Town Manager William Leach remembers the time when as a young man he needed to borrow money to buy a house for his growing family. That's how he met Duncan Read.

"I was sitting in the lobby of the Middleburg National Bank telling the receptionist about my hopes and fears {of getting a loan} when the bank president, who had overheard my conversation, called out, 'If the bank won't loan you the money, I will.' "

The bank president who made that generous offer was longtime Middleburg resident Duncan Read. At 94, Read is America's oldest living aviator, who served the Navy in two world wars. While he hasn't been in the cockpit of a fighter plane in several decades, Read is still a heroic figure to the Middleburg area residents he has helped over the years.

"Every community should have a person like Duncan Read in its midst," Leach said. "The last person he thinks about is Duncan Read."

Read doesn't quite see it that way. Despite the list of individuals and charities he continues to help and support, he said, "I don't really help anyone unless I have a personal interest in them."

By that measure, Read has had a personal interest in many things and many people. According to Leach, Read has come forward with money to fund speech therapy, medical programs and other emergency situations for individuals over the years, something Read is reluctant to discuss.

But he does speak with pride of having been named "Cultural Laureate of Virginia" by then-Gov. Charles Robb because of "my activities in astronomy and making astronomy available to the general public."

Read did this, he explained, by donating an astronomical observatory to Foxcroft School in Middleburg and helping to run it for "quite a while." The facility has been accredited by the naval observatory in Washington.

His principal charities, the former investment and banking executive said, involve destitute people and animals. He contributes heavily to the Loudoun Shelter for Abused Women and Children and the Humane Society, among others.

When he was treasurer of the Middleburg Hunt, Read learned of a program at Cornell University that specialized in the study of canine diseases. "I made sure the Middleburg Hunt contributed to it and I got other hunts involved, too," he said. Read said he also contributes to the program, although he hasn't ridden to the hounds in many years.

But Read's abiding love is birds. An Audubon Society member and inveterate birdwatcher, Read said he has spotted at least 150 species on his 55-acre estate. A pair of worn binoculars lies on a table near the front door, always at the ready.

He has designed a patented bird feeder that would sell for $150 -- if it were sold. Instead, Read says, he gives them away.

The feeder is mounted on ball bearings and has wooden flaps that catch the wind. This keeps the feeder facing away from the elements at all times, he explained. Its wooden roof and three plexiglass sides protect not only the feed from the weather, but also the birds.

Although Leach builds the feeders in his back-yard workshop ("Bill is a much better carpenter than I am," Read said), Read built the one that graces his yard. At seven feet, it is about two feet taller than the ones Leach builds and ships all over the country at Read's expense.

"I did it that way so the people in the kitchen can see the birds," Read said.

Read is also an adventurer and photographer who has traveled the world 13 times to photograph the total eclipse of the sun, a task for which he devised his own specialized equipment. The last place he photographed an eclipse was Bratsk, Siberia, where he had to "climb quite a hill" first. He was nearly 90 at the time.

Of the Siberian trek, Read said, "Do you know that Bratsk is exactly 180 degrees west and 180 degrees east of Middleburg? The shortest way from Bratsk to Middleburg, I found out, is to go right over the North Pole."

He grinned. "I didn't do it, though."

He would have if he could have, Read's friends believe. Said Middleburg Mayor Loyal McMillin: "I truly admire the man. He is the ideal of a person who makes the most out of all his natural abilities."