AL LOOKS BACK

In the early '60s Beech did great and was staffed with accomplished and fun-loving people

By Al Higdon
Former Beech and Learjet Communications Executive
Cofounder of the Sullivan Higdon & Sink Ad Agency


Jim Greenwood was Al's boss, both at Beech and Learjet, becoming his mentor in the industry.

Like most people in business, my 1st extended career job was my time for preparation for the rest of my life. Joining Beech Aircraft's public relations operation at 24 in January 1961 was an ideal fit for me.

I landed in a company that gave freedom for younger people to express themselves, make mistakes and grow. Beech was full of smart, accomplished folks who both mentored you and helped you have a good time along the way. Equally importantly, I found myself in an industry that was alive and on the leading edge of so much of what America is all about. What a deal.

Alex Kvassay learned the ropes in aviation at Beech, where he became a key player in the firm's export sales group.

My immediate boss was James R "Jim" Greenwood, and with this association I really struck the mother lode. Jim was a mere 40 years old when I first entered his office. I was hired by his boss, Phil McKnight, Beech director of public relations, who didn't even introduce me to Jim during the interview process. I can't imagine the thoughts going through Jim's head at the time.

But you would have assumed he had handpicked me from the start. He immediately began teaching me the ropes, briefing me on the industry, its terms, its people and its products. He became my mentor. With only a high school education, Jim was one of the best writers I've ever known. He had learned to fly in the late '30s, served in the Navy during World War II, and had worked in PR elsewhere in the industry before joining Beech in 1956.

Jim Yarnell spent his entire aviation career at Beech, advancing from chief photographer to manager of advertising.

Like so many men of his era, Jim at that time was a chain smoker. The 3 of us who worked for him had a straight shot into his small, glass-walled office from our cramped adjoining space. His habit was to light a cigarette, turn sideways to us at his trusty manual typewriter and begin puffing and pecking away, oblivious to anything else. Our lot was to take bets on when the elongated, fiery ash would give up and drop into Jim's lap, as it almost always did, causing mild panic and a spate of arm swamping. No, it didn't take much to amuse us.

My great colleague at Beech was Wendell Sullivan, whose desk for 4 years was 3 feet from mine. Wendell was a tall, lanky, intelligent, funny guy, 4 years my senior. We were soul mates, and in 1971 we became business partners.

Al Higdon (L) and Wendell Sullivan met while working together for 4 years at Beech Aircraft in the early 1960s. In 1971 they formed Sullivan Higdon Inc, now Sullivan Higdon & Sink, an advertising and public relations firm with long-time strong ties to general aviation.

Other memorable Beech folk included James R "Jim" Yarnell, manager of advertising, who earlier at Beech had distinguished himself as probably America's premier air-to-air photographer. He was the Paul Bowen of his day. And Sandor "Alex" Kvassay, then a 35-year-old Hungarian refugee working in the Beech export sales department. I watched him give a primer on selling airplanes overseas to the entire Beech management group and could not have been more impressed with his message.

In my 4th year at the company, Jim Greenwood had been heavily recruited by Bill Lear to join his fledgling organization across Wichita, on Mid-Continent Airport – now Eisenhower National. Jim's departure from Beech led to my promotion into his former slot. But less than a half-year later, Jim began wooing me to join him in helping make the Lear Jet name synonymous with the term business jet. It was too enticing; I couldn't resist.

So in September 1964, just after Lear Jet 23 certification and just before 1st delivery to a customer, I became what was known around Beech as a Venetian boatman, a "Gone-to-Lear."

Al Higdon spent 12 years as a public relations executive with Beech and
Learjet before co-founding an advertising/pr firm that represented more than a dozen clients in aviation, including Learjet and Cessna, over a 25 year period before his retirement at 60 in 1996.