Zach Spicer The Tribune
Inaugural runway race benefits airport museum
November 13, 2023
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  • Growing up on South Walnut Street in Seymour, Jim Noelker said he and a buddy often ran in the area.

    With Freeman Municipal Airport in the vicinity, he always thought it would be neat to have a race there because of the length of one of the runways.

    “The hook was to get on the runway, get from Point A to Point B,” Noelker said. “Everybody wants to know how fast they can run a mile.”

    He shared the idea with Airport Manager Don Furlow.

    “He was optimistic. He was positive about it,” Noelker said.

    After Furlow retired, Noelker talked to the new airport manager, Colin Smith.

    “He was ecstatic about it,” Noelker said.

    Once the Seymour Municipal Airport Authority gave its stamp of approval to close Runway 5/23 for a milelong airport runway foot race, he was able to move forward with planning the inaugural Museum Mile.

    He chose proceeds to go to the Freeman Army Airfield Museum, which preserves, protects and displays artifacts from the World War II era when Freeman Army Airfield served as a training base for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

    On the day of the race, which happened to fall on Veterans Day, 50 people participated by running or walking. Noelker said that was double the number of people who preregistered.

    The top male runner, Ben Franke (5 minutes, 11 seconds), and top female runner, Anna Jablonski (7 minutes, 6 seconds), each received vouchers for a 30-minute plane ride around Jackson County courtesy of Larry Bothe, curator of the museum and a pilot.

    “It’s the greatest win you could get, if you ask me,” Noelker said.

    Participants received a plaque and a shirt with the Museum Mile logo on them.

    Initially, the race was going to be divided into heats. But due to the number of participants, Jeff Niewedde with Indiana Timing decided to have everyone start at the same time and just do one race.

    Two of the finishers were Rabel “Ray” Newkirk and his son, Kurt Newkirk, of Seymour. Ray, who turned 100 on Aug. 14, is a World War II veteran. Kurt pushed his father in a wheelchair.

    Noelker is a relative and asked Kurt about having his father participate since he’s a veteran.

    “I thought it was all right,” Ray said, smiling, when asked what he thought when his son suggested they participate.

    It’s not every day you can run or walk — or ride in a wheelchair — on an airport runway.

    “I think it’s so unique,” Kurt said.

    An American flag was draped around Ray during the race, and he wore his World War II veteran hat. His wife, Ruth Newkirk, 91, rode in one of the city’s transportation buses as a spectator.

    “I had to do that definitely,” Kurt said of putting the flag on his dad. “I told him, ‘It’s cloth, it’s cotton, so it might give you a little added warmth.’”

    It was cold but sunny the morning of the race.

    “God has given us a good day,” Kurt said, noting he was happy to accompany his father for the special occasion. “It’s just a great honor to do this and see the excitement of others out here. I hope it continues.”

    Fittingly, Kurt and Ray crossed the finished line in 19 minutes, 45 seconds. Put together, 1945 represents the year World War II ended.

    Another veteran, Ray Hughes, 83, of North Vernon stood out during the race, too.

    He wore a camouflage uniform he bought a couple of years ago that he wears on Veterans Day. While it’s not the same uniform he wore during his service with the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1962, he wears it with equal pride.

    He said it was his choice to enlist in the military.

    “Back then, we had a seven-year commitment, and I didn’t have a job at the time, and I said, ‘Well, if I get a job, I’ve got to come back if I get drafted, so instead, I’ll just sign up and get it done,’” Hughes said. “That’s exactly what I did.”

    He was a switchboard repairman in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

    “It was a duty I had to do, and I signed up and did it so I’d get it over with,” he said. “I don’t regret it at all. Everybody ought to serve and do something like that. I thoroughly believe that.”

    His daughter, Theresa Brewer of North Vernon, learned about the Museum Mile from her hairdresser, and they decided to do it together. Theresa’s hairdresser walked, too.

    “I do everything if it benefits the veterans,” Hughes said. “If it’s something going on in my area, I participate.”

    Brewer said her dad started doing 5Ks about 10 years ago, and she estimates he has done at least 50. Since he said he did enough running when he played basketball in school, he has chosen to do walks for the 5Ks.

    While he has walked at a variety of places, Hughes can now say he has walked a mile on an airport runway.

    Noelker said the Museum Mile will continue on an annual basis on the second Saturday of November.