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One man can make a difference
by Harry Spencer
Sep 18, 2009 | 1244 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/Dan McGee -
Sporting its new colors, Rare Bear is about to take off for a qualifying run on Tuesday. As usual former Sparks resident John Penney is in the cockpit.
Tribune/Dan McGee - Sporting its new colors, Rare Bear is about to take off for a qualifying run on Tuesday. As usual former Sparks resident John Penney is in the cockpit.
As the 46th annual National Championship Air Races take to the skies over Reno today and tomorrow, there will probably be no mention of the man who made the event possible. Only those long-time founders of the first races, which were held in 1964 at the Sky Ranch on Pyramid Highway, will recall the name of Bill Stead.

No, the Stead airfield is not named after Stead. Rather it is named after his brother, who was also a pilot. However, it was the young, preppy-looking Bill Stead, a top hydroplane driver, who first conceived of the Reno races and who was able to bring Harold’s Club and the Mapes Hotel on board as the major sponsors of that initial event.

One of the original board members of that first effort was Roy Powers, who for a lengthy period of time was the marketing chief at Harold’s. Powers, along with several other board members, went so far as to mortgage their homes during the early lean years of the races. The famous logo of the races was created by Powers’ artist, Mel Mathewson, and it mimics the trophy that Harold’s presented the cross-country pilot who won that race to kick off the first Reno race. Another forgotten element of the 1964 event was the fact that hot air balloons were first introduced to the area in order to provide some scenic thrills when the seven planes entered in the race were not in the air.

Also contributing — but seldom acknowledged — was the late U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon. Up for re-election to his second term that year and a pilot himself, Cannon was personally responsible for acquiring the services of the Air National Guard Demonstration Flying Team to appear in Reno in 1964. It took Cannon just a couple of hours to get the demo team after Stead and I put in a call to him from my Mapes office.

As mentioned, Bill Stead was a boyish-looking individual who seemed much younger than his years. But nonetheless, he was a daredevil to whom nothing was impossible. I only had the opportunity to fly with him once, when Mapes and I accompanied him to a Sacramento, Calif. press conference to promote the first race. At the stick of a single-engine plane that he had never flown before, Stead decided to give us a “thrill” by flying the Truckee River Canyon west, some 15 or 20 feet above the river itself. If that wasn’t enough, he made a spectacular landing in Sacramento that sent the tower into an uproar. Following the press conference, Mapes and Stead flew back to Reno while I opted for the Greyhound bus.

The reason Stead was the ideal person to restart the National Championship Air Races was that, for the most part, the Unlimited Hydroplane drivers were excellent airplane pilots and, like Stead, they were always looking for new fields to conquer. Since those hydro drivers had just competed for the gold cup at Pyramid Lake in 1963, it was relatively easy for Stead to talk them into segueing to planes for the air race.

The Reno air races themselves took a quantum leap when the Reno Army Air base, now Stead Airport, closed down thereby offering an incredibly large venue at which the races could grow to their present staggering size. Stead himself died far too young when he crashed a plane while competing in an air race in Florida.

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet a TV producer from Chicago who was in Reno for a major event. Since he was the keynote speaker, I asked if he needed any info for his introductory effort. He replied he didn’t, since many years previous he had written a canned speech, which he entitled, “One Man Can Make a Difference.” Following that, he had delivered the speech many times over by the simple expedient of changing the name of the man he was honoring. Too bad he never got in introduce Bill Stead.

Celebrity Corner

The other night on one of the cable channels, a movie aired called, “The Colossus of Rhodes.” It starred Rory Calhoun in a rare appearance in a costume piece. Shot in 1960 as a foreign film, it looked like Calhoun was the only actor who spoke English. Even though his costars were well dubbed and no expense was spared on the ornate sets, the pilot was pretty weak and Calhoun did not seem too comfortable in a tunic and sandals. However, the promo lines for the flick noted that it was, “One of the better ‘sandals and swords’ epics of its time.”

Calhoun himself cruised through Reno sometime in the 1960s and was a pretty good gambler in the SkyRoom of the Mapes. In person, he was even more handsome than in his pictures and stood a towering 6-feet 4-inches tall. His big talent was that he was the perfect romantic leading man type. Yet, for all the films he made, he was best remembered for a movie in which he had been “cast against type” as a villainous scoundrel opposite Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum in “The River of no Return.” At the time, most critics thought Hollywood had made a big boo-boo in not giving the heroic Mitchum role to Calhoun and vice versa. However, it turned out to be a huge success and as Monroe once noted, one of her favorites of all time.

Interviewing Rory was an easy matter since he has a slight drawl to his normal voice and was a very laid back and relaxed individual, seemingly unimpressed with his own star status. A dying breed in Hollywood.

Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.

Editor’s note: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.
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