What began as a part-time job takes off as Kurt Schwartz’s career
By Bill Richardson
The summer job that Kurt Schwartz took after graduating from North Knox High School in 1978 has worked out all right.
More than 40 years later, after climbing his way up the ladder, Schwartz has been manager of the Lawrenceville-Vincennes Municipal Airport since 1989. The facility, located in Lawrence County, Illinois, lies six miles northeast of Lawrenceville, Illinois, and eight miles northwest of Vincennes, on 3,028 acres of land. It’s managed by the Bi-State Authority, a board that consists of four members from both Lawrence and Knox counties.
After completing high school, Schwartz was looking for a job while contemplating his future. A neighbor — Carl O’Dell, who happened to be the airport manager at the time — provided it, after Schwartz had displayed a good work ethic while helping O’Dell out on his farm.
“I was out of high school, and I said, ‘Why not?’ I figured I’d work here for a while until I found something better,” Schwartz said, more than four decades later. “To make a long story short, I’m still here.”
As a maintenance man, Schwartz served the facility in many capacities. Along the way he attended a multitude of classes and was able to gain various certifications, principally in the area of water treatment and municipal waste, which are necessary to run the airport.
“Basically I was a person that, over the years, was trained to run this facility,” Schwartz said.
The opportunity came about in 1987. John Fitzgerald, the manager at the time, left for a job with an airline. Schwartz was asked to fill in on a temporary basis. That turned into a two-year stint as the airport’s interim manager.
“The board asked me to fill in until they could find someone,” Schwartz said. “Two years later, basically they said ‘We can’t find anyone better.’ They made me airport manager in 1989.”
One thing that makes the Lawrenceville-Vincennes Municipal Airport unique is that it’s “self-supportive,” according to Schwartz. Most similar airports, he says, draw tax revenues from the county or cities to operate.
“We don’t do that,” he said. “We have that mechanism in place, should we ever need to, but we’ve provided our communities with a tax-free airport, with all this (farm) acreage and industrial property. The city fathers said, ‘Make it work,’ and over the years the airport’s done a pretty good job of doing that.”
Schwartz stresses that he still goes after all the state and federal money the airport is entitled to. The Bi-State Authority is optimistic about receiving $7 million in federal grant money to re-surface the two runways, and put new lighting in place, in the near future.
“I try to get all the state and federal tax money for improvements that is out there. I go for all of that I can get,” he said. “But there is no local tax on the citizens here, and that’s a great thing.”
Schwartz calls the Mid-American Air Center at the Lawrenceville-Vincennes Municipal Airport “one of the finest facilities in the Tri-State.”
“We may not be the busiest, because of the population of Knox and Lawrence counties,” he said. “But we’ve got two one-mile runways with real clean approaches, and over the years we’ve protected them.”
The runways at the Lawrence County facility have what Schwartz calls “unobstructed approaches.”
“A lot of the airports are bigger and some of their approaches are restrictive,” said Schwartz, a private pilot since 1995. “That means more instrumentation is needed for the aircraft and there’s more risk involved.”
Schwartz notes that the Lawrenceville-Vincennes Municipal Airport recently became qualified for Local Performance with Vertical Guidance approaches.
“They’re some of the best approaches you can get,” he said. “Mainly it’s due to qualifying for those approaches that we can keep our airspace so clean.”
Another asset is the Foreign Trade Zone at the facility, in which companies can use special procedures that result in reduced duty payments on foreign merchandise, as well as other savings.
Additionally, according to Schwartz, the FTZ creates local jobs.
“Marathon Oil in Robinson produces diesel fuel,” he said. “They can import crude oil from another nation, alter it, create diesel fuel, and ship it back out overseas again and not pay a dusty or a tax on that. What it does, actually, is create jobs in our area. It keeps the people in Robinson busy enough that they can retain those jobs.”
The Toyota Boshoku plant in Lawrenceville, says Schwartz, frequently takes advantage of the FTZ, as do other companies.
“It’s not the most active Foreign Trade Zone there is,” he said. “But there is a lot of activity there.”
The area hasn’t always been the site of an airport, of course. It’s located in what’s known locally as “Allison Prairie,” and at one time featured a small community known as Centerville.
The establishment of George Field, a World War II pilot training school for the U.S. Army on the site in August of 1942, led to today’s facility. Initially named the Lawrence Army Flying School, the name was changed to honor General Harold H. George, who was killed in a ground accident in Australia on April 29, 1942.
Training at George Field was halted on Sept. 1, 1945, as the war was ending and the facility was placed on standby status. A nice selection of memorabilia from the George Field era remains on display in the airport’s terminal building, and Schwartz has obtained an impressive collection of photographs over the years.
George Field was declared excess by the Army in 1946, and on Nov. 16, 1948, was conveyed to the City of Lawrenceville — thanks to the hard work of Mayor Stoy Fox — to establish a municipal airport.
The facility remained Lawrenceville Municipal Airport until 1963, when Vincennes officials approached with the idea of forming the current airport. The Bi-State Authority was agreed to, and both cities, as well as the states of Illinois and Indiana, approved ordinances to get things in place.
Schwartz says the airport will continue to evolve. Vincennes University, once a major presence at the facility with a flight program, is on the verge of returning. Already, the university is conducting drone training at the airport.
“It seems like there’s always a lot of things going on out here,” said Schwartz. “And I think we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
He stresses that the airport will continue to play an important role, in both Knox and Lawrence counties.
“It’s not publicized very much, but the airport is definitely an asset to our communities,” he said. “If the airport wasn’t here, our communities wouldn’t be in as good of shape as they’re in today.”
Schwartz, who lives in Vincennes with his wife, Lori, an Oaktown native, also has a future at the airport. As long as his health remains good, he’d like to put off retirement until the year 2025. By that time assistant manager Tyler Funk will be more than ready to take the reins.
“By then it’ll be time for some new ideas, some new thought,” Schwartz said. “On the other hand, I still have a mission to keep the growth going and make sure the airport is self-sustaining like it has been.”
Just like he has every day since taking a part-time job there more than 40 years ago.