by Dave Weiman
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2018 issue
“The year is 1925. Back from World War I, many young former fight pilots were trying to make a living in aviation. You are standing on a grass field holding your grandfather’s hand, looking up and watching many mysterious and wonderful aerobatic things in the sky. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the scene we wish to recreate for you today!
“From your right, high in the sky, four World War II biplanes are ready to entertain you. Get your cameras ready… Red Baron Frozen Pizza proudly presents the Red Baron Flying Circus – four daring young men in their flying machines, known as the Red Baron Stearman Squadron.
“Let’s jump into another time… Let’s have the fun your grandfather had…or his grandfather had before him.”
Those were the words of Jerry Van Kempen, 93, narrator of the Red Baron Stearman Squadron from 1990 to 2004. Jerry passed away April 12, 2018 in his hometown of Alexandria, Minnesota. He is survived by his wife of 69 years, Margaret; three daughters; and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.
After a career in business, announcing auto races, hosting radio and television programs, and filling in as a traveling preacher, Jerry found his niche late in life, announcing airshows and providing a sound system. Spectators and performers both enjoyed Jerry’s stories and rapid-fire play-by-play announcing, but most of all they enjoyed his personality, which came through loud and clear. Respected by fans and peers alike, Jerry Van Kempen quickly rose to airshow stardom. He was one of the best, if not the best announcer in the airshow entertainment industry.
Jerry’s love for aviation has been true since World War II when he watched with envy the “Flying Sergeants” in his artillery battalion. “They flew out each morning to spot the enemy, flying L-4s and 5s,” was one of many stories Jerry would tell airshow crowds. Jerry left the service in 1946 and returned to Minneapolis where his parents were living at the time.
Upon leaving the service Jerry recalled paying $1,175.00 for a 1940 Dodge. In 1958, he said the Army was selling P-51 Mustangs for $1,500.00. “I was the brilliant one and bought the Dodge.”
Jerry took flying lessons at Lakeland Skyways at Wold Chamberlain Field (now Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport) in October 1947 on the GI Bill. He soloed on Halloween Day in an Aeronca Champ.
“I remember sitting there at the end of the runway, waggling my ailerons to tell the tower I was ready for takeoff.” Apparently, in those days there was only one-way radio communication between the tower and small general aviation aircraft.
Jerry was building flight hours and working for Mill City Aviation at the time – an Ercoupe and Globe Swift dealer at Wold Chamberlain – when a fellow flight student introduced him to his future wife and lifelong companion, Margaret. They got married in 1949.
While Margaret was busy raising their family consisting of three daughters – Mary, Ellen and Jeri – and working an 8-to-5 job as a secretary with the Alxandria School District, Jerry tried his hand at the concrete burial vault business, as a car salesman, as a sales representative for the local newspaper which won him national honors for his ideas, and as a dealer for Honda. But all along, Jerry held a burning and pent up desire to talk and entertain, whether as a lay reader for the Episcopal Church, or announcing stock car races on weekends.
Throughout the years, Jerry said that his announcing style didn’t change.
“I could play you a recording I made in 1956 at a race and you would know exactly who was announcing.” Jerry said that he announced the races in the exact same style that he later did at airshows, by announcing in an upbeat style of presentation. “I’m the only person in this business all these years who hasn’t improved!”
Jerry went on to co-emcee an annual charitable fundraiser during the holidays for the Jaycees called “Jingle Bells,” which was televised; a weekly radio program called the “Harland & Jerry Mess;” a weekly television program called “Just For Laughs;” the annual Governor’s Fishing Opener; an appearance by then Vice President Hubert Humphrey; an annual national press party; and even a “This Is Your Life” – type program.
Jerry Van Kempen’s introduction to the airshow entertainment industry came in 1979 when Bellanca Aircraft sponsored its first airshow in conjunction with a convention of Bellanca owners in Alexandria, Minnesota. At that show, Duane Cole was the headline act, and fearing the rookie announcer, Cole brought his own professional narrator to the show, and Jerry announced the rest of the show.
“I didn’t blame Cole at the time. After all, I had never narrated an act in my life before then. Cole did what he should have done. Having a narrator you can trust is very important to a performer’s presentation.”
From there, Jerry narrated for performers who were also just starting out, like Minnesota’s John Mohr who flew a stock Stearman act that even the great Bob Hoover admired, and the world’s only biplane-to-helicopter transfer.
Red Baron Pizza hired Jerry towards the end of the 1988 season to narrate the Red Baron Stearman Squadron, and he narrated for the team’s remaining three shows that year in Denver, Colorado; Sierra Vista, Arizona; and Temple, Texas. Jerry continued to announce only part time for the team in 1989 because of prior commitments to announce a string of other shows. But beginning in 1990, he began narrating the team’s entire 18-show schedule, which grew to become 25 shows per season.
Audiences could not help but to come away from Jerry’s performances with a smile and having learned something about aviation history they hadn’t known before. “If I don’t bring our fans back in time to the barnstorming era, and let them fantasize, I feel I’ve let them down because that is the essence, the flavor of each and every Red Baron performance.”
I remember sitting in the VIP section at the Chicago Air & Water Show some time after the motion picture “Apollo 13” came out in 1995. Astronaut and Chicago resident, James Lovell, who was portrayed in the film, was there and was thoroughly entertained by Jerry’s narration. Jerry described Lovell over the public-address system as a great American who learned to fly in the Stearman biplane to go on to fly to the moon and back! I also remember seeing Margaret at that show and other shows arranging Jerry’s notes and handing out autograph photos of the team to children.
“Margaret was a real trooper! She’s the best P.R. person Red Baron could have,” said Jerry. “This grandma puts Red Baron stickers on kids, meets with customers, and helps the pilots work the crowd.”
Margaret would always tell Jerry about his ventures, “If this doesn’t work, we will try something else that will.” But finally, they had reached the pinnacle of their careers and Margaret commented: “Life is the best it’s ever been. This is a great time in our lives. I like being outdoors and traveling with Van.”
The Van Kempens’ most memorable show was El Toro, California on May 1, 1993, when a crowd of 500,000 spectators joined in to sing happy birthday to Margaret. Their most unpleasant show was when they witnessed their first accident, then again in 1998 when two members of the Red Baron Stearman Squadron collided in midair at an airshow in Kissimmee, Florida. The two pilots were Randall L. Drake, 39, of Delafield, Wisconsin, and James (Sonny) Edward Lovelace, 46, of Seward, Nebraska. I was with Jerry and Margaret later that day at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida, where the team was also scheduled to perform. This was a difficult time for the team and their corporate sponsor, Schwan Food Co. in Marshall, Minnesota, but they kept going until January 2008 when – after 28 years and 2,000 performances – the decision was made to discontinue the team. The Van Kempens retired in 2004 at age 79.
Among the many awards the Van Kempens shared as members of the Red Baron Stearman Squadron was the “Bill Barber Award For Showmanship,” and the “Art Scholl Showmanship Award.” The greatest award bestowed Jerry Van Kempen as an individual performer was the “ICAS Sword of Excellence” in 2002 by the International Council of Air Shows.
A celebration of life for Jerry Van Kempen will be held Sunday, July 8, 2018 in the main hangar at Chandler Field-Alexandria Municipal Airport in Alexandria, Minnesota. A service will be held at 2:00 p.m. with a 1-hour visitation prior to the service, as well as after the service. For additional information, contact the airport manager, Kreg Anderson at 320-762-2111 (email@example.com), or Jeri (Van Kempen) Jost at 218-841-7117 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
For a current obituary, check with the Anderson Funeral Home website in Alexandria, Minnesota: www.andersonfuneral.net