Remembering Rob Kells

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August 9, 2018

Rob Kells, our friend and partner for more than 30 years, passed away ten years ago today. It is hard to believe that it has been that long since he left us, but time passes at an ever accelerating rate as we get older, and those of us who are left are now old enough that the passage of time has indeed become rapid. There probably is not a lot that can be said about Rob that hasn’t already been said or written – (you can still visit Rob’s Page and Remembrances of Rob on our web site by searching for “Rob Kells”) – but we thought we would share with you some thoughts excerpted from Mike’s acceptance speech to the USHPA Board when they awarded him the Rob Kells Memorial Award.

Mike and Linda Meier, and Steve Pearson

March 11, 2016 – USHPA Awards Banquet
When I got the letter from George Sturtevant last November informing me that I had been selected to receive the Rob Kells Memorial Award I’ll admit to having had some significant misgivings. I wasn’t involved in the creation of the award, but I was consulted at the time, and I thought I remembered something of the stated award criteria. But to be sure, I went onto the USHPA web site, and read the criteria again. Yep, there it was, as I remembered it:

“The intention of the Rob Kells Memorial award is to recognize a pilot, group, chapter or other entity that stands out in the free-flight community as possessing qualities and actions that bring to mind Rob Kells and all that he represented to everyone who knew him.”

“This award should reflect all the qualities that endeared Rob Kells to the flying community.”

Well now. I believe that I knew Rob about as well as anyone in the flying community, so I think I am at least somewhat qualified to speak to those qualities that endeared him to that community. Rob was extremely charismatic. He was gregarious, outgoing and friendly. He was unfailingly upbeat, optimistic, positive and encouraging. And he went out of his way to direct credit to others, and to make others feel good about themselves.

Hence, my misgivings. It would take much more than a slight stretch to imagine that those qualities could be legitimately ascribed to this year’s recipient. So at this point, I’m feeling a little bit like Dan Quayle at the 1988 vice presidential debates, when he was called out by Lloyd Bentsen for having compared himself to JFK. I fully expect someone to stand up in the back of the room, level an accusatory finger, and say, “I flew with Rob Kells, I knew Rob Kells, Rob Kells was a friend of mine. And you, sir, are no Rob Kells!”

And indeed, I am not.

Well, it’s called the Rob Kells Memorial award. So perhaps it is enough if we use this occasion to remember Rob, and what he meant to those of us who knew him, and what he meant to the larger community as a whole. In addition to the qualities I’ve mentioned, which served Rob well in his position as president and head of sales of Wills Wing, Rob was a person of unexpected vision. He was the architect and the chief defender of a long standing policy at Wills Wing under which we would not sell retail direct in competition with our own dealers, and under which we would support, to the best of our ability, the dealers, schools and instructors who were, and are, the wellspring of support for their local flying communities and the ultimate source of sustainability for our sport.

This policy was often a significant disadvantage to us business wise in the short term, especially back in the days when there were far more manufacturers competing for what was even then a too small market of customers, but over the long term it turned out to be the best possible thing for the sport and for us as a company.

Rob also influenced me in other ways. I remember a conversation among the four managing partners at Wills Wing, early in our association, during which we were debating the best course of action for the company, among several alternatives, in a difficult situation. Rob was advocating strongly for one particular decision, which to me did not seem to be the most practically advantageous. When I pressed him to defend his position, he said simply, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

That conversation had a profound effect on me. I realized in that moment that this was perhaps the one necessary and sufficient condition that one needed, when making a choice in a situation where there was any moral or ethical component to the decision.

After Rob died, a memorial service was held, and some of us had the opportunity to say a few words about him. As part of my remarks, I chose to quote from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt. The speech was entitled “Citizenship In A Republic” and this was the quotation:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or how the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena – whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly and who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, and who, at best, in the end, knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Rob Kells was, without question, in the arena. He knew the triumph of high achievement. He also knew defeat. But he was never a cold or timid soul. I myself have been much more the critic, and in this, and in many other ways I am almost the opposite of what Rob was. But he did inspire me: to try to be something more, something better. As I suspect he inspired many other people along the way. And whether or not we fully live up to that inspiration, perhaps it is enough that we remember him by having experienced it.