Memorial bench in Whitehall Community Park depicts aircraft-manufacturing history

A. Kevin Corvo
ThisWeek group
Billie McComas-Bower (left) and Nolan Leatherman, who both worked for North American Aviation near Whitehall, collaborated on raising funds for and designing a memorial bench installed Oct. 16 at Whitehall Community Park, 402 N. Hamilton Road. The bench depicts aircraft built by North American Aviation, which later became Rockwell International. The Columbus plant closed in 1988.

At a time when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and the United States enjoyed post-World War II economic prosperity in the 1950s, an array of military airplanes rolled out of the North American Aviation plant on East Fifth Avenue between North Yearling and North Hamilton roads in Columbus, on the doorstep of Whitehall.

Images of those aircraft – including the T-28 Trojan and the F-100 Super Sabre – have been etched into a marble bench that was installed Oct. 16 at Whitehall Community Park, 402 N. Hamilton Road in Whitehall, after a two-year effort.

Previous story:Whitehall park bench magnifies locals’ role in aviation history

“We are proud of the beautiful addition to the park,” said Billie McComas-Bower of Westerville, a former Whitehall resident who spearheaded the creation of the bench.

A marble memorial bench installed Oct. 16 at Whitehall Community Park, 402 N. Hamilton Road, depicts various military aircraft manufactured at North American Aviation just outside Whitehall. North American Aviation became Rockwell International, which closed its Columbus plant in 1988.

McComas-Bower, 82, worked for 32 years at North American Aviation and Rockwell International, the name of the plant after an acquisition. Rockwell International closed in 1988.

McComas-Bower started working at North American Aviation as a summer intern in 1956, two weeks after she graduated from Bexley High School; the first graduating class from Whitehall-Yearling High School was not until 1958.

“I stayed until they shut the doors. ... It was the only job I ever had,” said McComas-Bower, whose parents worked at the plant’s forerunner, Curtiss-Wright Corp., which operated before and during World War II.

When it closed, Rockwell International gifted what had been a privately owned park to Whitehall – today's Whitehall Community Park.

Previous story:Former Rockwell employees revisit revived Whitehall park

A dedication ceremony for the new bench is planned for May 15, Armed Forces Day.

The North American Aviation bench is adjacent to the another memorial at Whitehall Community Park for the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, whose seven members were killed Jan. 28, 1986, after it exploded 73 seconds into its flight.

Rockwell International manufactured parts for NASA’s space-shuttle program.

McComas-Bower began working two years ago with Nolan Leatherman, 84, of Reynoldsburg, another former North American Aviation and Rockwell International employee, to raise the money to build and install the memorial bench.

Leatherman worked at North American Aviation and Rockwell International from 1957 until 1991, the last three years at a Rockwell International plant in California.

“It was challenging because most of the retirees had passed or we had no known address,” but they were able to raise the $5,000 needed for it, McComas-Bower said.

The pair also traveled twice to Xenia, where Leatherman, who designed the bench, worked with Dodds Memorials, which made and installed the bench.

“I only asked that it had my favorite plane in the center: the Vigilante RA-5C,” said McComas-Bower, who recalled watching it soar and break the sound barrier during test flights at Port Columbus International Airport, now John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

The planes depicted on the bench are limited to those made while the plant operated as North American Aviation.

Leo Knoblauch, president of the Whitehall Historical Society, said the bench "honors the employees who worked at the plant" during all its iterations.

Whitehall Community Park was made possible through private donations solicited by those employees and even proceeds from the sale of cigarettes and beverages at vending machines at the plant, Knoblauch said.

Mayor Kim Maggard said the effort to create the bench is significant because it connects Rockwell International and its forerunners to Whitehall's history.

"(Whitehall) has a strong connection to Rockwell, and many former employees used to live in Whitehall," she said. "It's important to remember the past efforts of such an influential company and their employees."

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo