John Van Horn was born almost a year after the Armistice ended the Great War, when it was still possible to find horse and buggy along the muddy and rutted roads of Roots Town, Ohio. His generation was the first to grow up with screens, although they were silver and required organ accompaniment. The newsreel of Charles Lindbergh’s “Triumphant Arrival in Paris” was shown in movie halls across the country and inspired a certain 3rd Grader to take up flying at Penn State University in 1937.
It was at Penn state in 1938 that he first met a striking and intelligent fifteen year old red-head, Sally Fern Ferris due to his landlord’s misunderstanding a room arrangement. But because they thought he was too skinny, Sally’s parents promised to feed him. So over the next five years, he and Sally would fall in love.
John earned his private pilot’s license (#66182) and studied aeronautical engineering while war broke out from Europe to China. He took 1941 off to work in the Piper Aircraft factory in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania and learned to lathe aircraft turrets for 30 cents an hour. He ferried brand new Piper Cubs across the midwest for 10 cents a mile, hitch-hiking back to Pennsylvania. This decision to take a year off would eventually prevent John from earning an aeronautical engineering degree because in December of 1942, just months away from graduating, he heeded the call of his country and volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Force.
After completing his basic training, John and Sally married in the summer of 1943 and he finagled an assignment maintaining training planes at Stewart Field, West Point to be close to his wife. An operation enabled Sally to conceive and Kathleen was born in 1945, Lyle in 1948, and Craig in 1949. Just before Craig was born, John deployed to Wiesbaden, Germany where he supported the Berlin Airlift from inside a C-54 for six months.
After the victory of the Berlin Airlift, the family moved to Chanute Airbase, Rantoule, Illinois. The economy boomed and the suburbs were invented. They bought their first house and would live there for the next thirteen years. From 1955 to 1957 John and the family were based in England. In 1955, the jet engine was still being engineered, so flying across an ocean happened in propeller planes. It was dangerous, and Sally and the kids very nearly ditched in the North Atlantic on their way to John at Effingham Field. They moved back to Chanute at the dawn of the Space Age, October 1957—the same month that the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 into orbit, terrified a Cold War America, and started the space race.
John made Master Sergeant. Sally worked as a secretary. Lyle got polio. They bought a ’53 Buick large enough to lay Lyle down flat. John became a Scout Master; it was 1961. The kids quarreled and played and grew up. Rock and roll was created. In 1963, John and Sally became grandparents. John retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965 after 22 years of service. It was the end of something big in his life.
But they could live anywhere they wanted to now and decided that place would be Denver. Across the continent, tens of thousands of miles of interstate highway were being paved. Everyone graduated from high school and the house emptied out. Everyone got older. Craig went to the Vietnam War. Lyle went to the University of Colorado at Boulder. Kathleen parented. John managed the motor pool at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Craig came back different. John loved him anyway.
He learned surveying and in 1975 he took employment with the Bureau of Land Management in Anchorage, Alaska. Lyle and Kathleen went to Alaska, too. John and Sally built a beautiful home with a two car garage. John became a grandfather again. With Sally, he discovered minerals and fossils by cracking open rocks. John took Sally across the Alaska in a red van with a canoe on top; John loved canoes and had learned how to pilot and sail them on the Susquehanna River five decades before. Together they went down the Alaska Canada Highway.
John fully retired at the age of 69 and bought a motor home. Across the country they went, back and forth from California to Maine with stops across the States. They were healthy. In the history of humanity, it was his generation that was the first to live a retirement this way. But John and Sally were great-grandparents now and moved to South Lake Tahoe at the dawn of a new millennium. The Space Age had converged with cars and the Cadillac they owned now talked to satellites in orbit.
In 2004, John and Sally bought a house in Nicholasville, Kentucky. It was a wise decision. Lyle’s children were growing older too. John was happy and shared his photo albums with the grandkids. John became a great-grandparent again and got to watch Lyle’s family play and talk and joke. When it was too loud, he just turned off his hearing aids and smiled. Late age had made him gentler, and when Sally died, he opened up in new ways and shared stories no one had heard. He was loved and respected. He read books and Scientific American and Discover Magazine. His mind was slower but still sharp.
For his final chapter, he overcame a hospital stay and made it to his grandson Mark’s promotion ceremony where he pinned him to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He ate two slices of blueberry pie with ice cream.
He said that he had finished his book and the author was signing it. It was a good life. Then he died.
John was laid to rest in Camp Nelson National Cemetery on Friday, March 22, 2019 with Military Honors. Hager & Cundiff Funeral Home was honored to serve the Van Horn Family.
This obituary was lovingly submitted by John’s grandson.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of John Hills Van Horn, please visit our floral store.