Stuart Powell, giant of autos and aviation in Boyle County, dies at 89

Published 12:27 pm Saturday, September 9, 2017


Funeral arrangements for Powell are through Preston-Pruitt Funeral Home in Danville. Visitation will be 2-4 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Tuesday at First Christian Church of Danville on Lexington Avenue. The funeral will be 11 a.m. Wednesday at the church.

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Stuart Powell, a pillar of Boyle County and the namesake of the county airfield, died early Saturday morning at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center. He was 89.

Powell died from complications from pneumonia, which he caught while recovering from a fractured hip at the hospital, said Patti Powell, Stuart Powell’s daughter who ran the Stuart Powell Ford Lincoln Mazda dealership with him.

“There was nobody like him for sure. He had the wit, the quickness, the wisdom, the integrity to do about anything,” Patti Powell said. “… He was a six-day-a-week worker even up to 89. And he was working the day he fell, making his usual service trips through the dealership … so he was doing what he loved the most.”

Funeral arrangements for Powell are through Preston-Pruitt Funeral Home in Danville. Visitation will be 2-4 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Tuesday at First Christian Church of Danville on Lexington Avenue. The funeral will be 11 a.m. Wednesday at the church.

The mood at the Stuart Powell dealership Saturday was “business as usual, but it’s definitely a different atmosphere,” an employee said.

“He would want you to keep going and sell cars. That’s who he was,” the employee said. “… He wouldn’t want a huge celebration, I feel like.”

Besides spending nearly 68 years in the car business, Powell was passionate about aviation and worked tirelessly to build the Danville-Boyle County Airport — and its airfield, which is named after him.

“He helped make everything happen,” said Rob Caldwell, an Airport Board member. “… He was very active in the management of the airport until the moment he fell. After that, he was still active in the hospital. I have no doubt that some of his last thoughts were about the airport, because it was part of his family.”

Caldwell has known Powell all his life, and Powell helped inspire him to pursue aviation at a young age, he said.

“My first ride in an airplane other than my father’s was when he took me up to take pictures of our farm,” he said. “I was just one of many people he would take up for rides to share the joys of aviation with.”

Powell had a vision for what the Danville-Boyle County Airport could be long before it achieved its current status as a highly regarded regional airport with a 5,000-foot runway and a waiting list of airplanes wanting hangars, Caldwell said.

“He could see when there was an opportunity to take a young, growing airfield and turn it into what it is today,” he said “It is a tremendous infrastructure that is one of the best in the state.”

Caldwell said Powell worked “foot by foot” to reach the “magic number” of 5,000 feet for the airfield’s main runway, allowing it to attract corporate traffic. Once that was complete, Powell began building up infrastructure around the runways. He secured funding for the airport’s administration building 10 years ago, and he almost lived to see it paid off.

“The final payment is being made this week,” Caldwell said. “It was always important to him that every penny the airport received was spent responsibly and that every debt was paid promptly. And that has always taken place.”

Work will continue on improvements to the airport that Powell helped secure federal and state funding for, including a new corporate hangar capable of housing jets and a 10-unit T-hangar to help with the airport’s lengthy waiting list.

Caldwell said Powell knew he wouldn’t be around forever and worked to ensure the airport would continue its rise after he was gone.

“The whole time I’ve been on the board, he’s been working very hard to enable the rest of the board to accept a day like today and maintain that momentum — and he’s done a tremendous job of that,” Caldwell said. “He’s been very organized; he’s made sure all the board members know (everyone) at the state and federal level and the local level. He’s got some big shoes to fill and he’s made sure they can be filled.”

Something Powell was very happy to accomplish at the airport was bringing back a Civil Air Patrol chapter.

“When he started flying, he was an active cadet with the Civil Air Patrol,” Caldwell said. “… When Civil Air Patrol came back to the airfield several years ago, that was one of probably the happiest moments he had enjoyed … he had worked for years to make that happen. For him to be able to see that not only launch but succeed in a great way was very fulfilling to him.”

Patti Powell said of all her fathers accomplishments, he would be most proud of his work developing the airport.

Powell made his first solo flight from the Boyle airport at the age of 16, she said.

“It was just in his blood from the beginning,” she said. “… That has always been his passion. He has just always wanted to see that airport grow and continue to grow — and it has.”

Patti Powell said the airport is “truly one of the best aviation airports” in the state.

“It can allow industry to certainly flourish here, if we can get our economic people thinking along those lines to promote the airport more, because it’s a gem,” she said. “I think more and more people need to visit the airport and learn about what we do have.”

Steve Parker, commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Aviation, said Powell was “an incredibly strong man.”

“He was a mentor to me,” Parker said. “… He was a good Christian man. He just wanted to help people.”

Parker had plans to attend Saturday’s UK football game, but had to leave at halftime because he couldn’t stop thinking about the loss of Powell. He came home to find his phone flooded with missed calls and texts from people who had heard the news.

“I loved him like a father; I only knew him 20 years,” Parker said. “… Not many men have I ever known in my life who were as good to other people, as genuine as Stuart Powell. I will never forget the example he set for me.”

Powell didn’t know it, but he was going to be given the prestigious Henry O. Award for “overall excellence in aviation over a long period of time” at an upcoming statewide aviation conference in Lexington, Parker said.

“Everybody in aviation in the state of Kentucky — and outside of Kentucky — respected Stuart Powell” for how he ran the Danville-Boyle County Airport, he said. “He would go to the airport every day just to motivate people. Who does that for a non-paying job? Who does that? Well, Stuart Powell did.”

Parker said Powell served as chairman of the airport board for 47 years; he was a strong supporter of many community organizations and events in Boyle County, including the Norton Center; he cared for his family; he cared for his employees; he gave selflessly to all of the things he cared about.

“What’s he going to be remembered for? All of those things, but mostly for his genuine loving of people,” Parker said.

Danville Mayor Mike Perros said Powell’s economic impact on the area is “probably larger than most people realize” because of how valuable the airport will be to future development.

Perros said Powell will be “forever remembered for his 40 years of dedicated work” to the airport.

“There wasn’t anybody in aviation that Stuart didn’t know, and maybe very few in aviation that didn’t know him,” Perros said. “Stuart could get things out of our state and federal government that just made people shake their heads.”

Perros said he and Powell shared a passion for music — both men love playing the drums.

“Back in his day, Stuart was a drummer in a number of jazz big bands,” he said. “… If you put a set of drums in front of him now, if he were still with us, he could still play — no doubt.”

Powell was proud of how successful his car dealership became over the years, Perros said.

“When he started in business, there was usually a Ford dealership in every county,” he said. “And as business became more competitive, Stuart essentially became the last man standing as he serviced nine counties.”

“Stuart didn’t slow down for anything,” Perros said. “Had it not been for his fall, he would still be actively involved in his business and his family — which, by the way, includes his employees. He treated them like family.”

Perros said he doesn’t know of another 89-year-old who is as “mentally sharp and physically active” as Powell was.

“Stuart dealt with life with grace. He celebrated the good things gracefully and he dealt with adversity gracefully,” he said. “… Stuart was a father figure to some; he was a mentor to many; and an inspiration to all of us.”

Patti Powell said her dad opened his first used car lot in Perryville in 1949. His father, Henry Powell, had been in the car business in Perryville in the early 1900s.

“He sold out before dad was really of age to get involved in it,” she said, but that didn’t stop Stuart Powell from returning to the business.

He met the woman he would marry, JoAnn, at Eastern Kentucky University, before they both left college and Stuart opened his car lot, Patti Powell said.

In 1960, he was hired by Mattingly Rapier Chevrolet to be general manager of a car lot in Lancaster.

“He was actually selling more Chevrolets out of Lancaster in Boyle County than the Chevrolet dealership in Boyle County was selling,” Patti Powell said. “That didn’t go over so well” with the owners, she noted.

Soon enough, a Ford dealership license became available and Powell opened his own dealership in Lancaster. While he was in Lancaster, he served on the city council and as mayor for 10 years, Patti Powell said.

“He pretty much helped get the water line drawn from the Kentucky River over to Lancaster so they would have running water. That’s how they got running water in Garrard County,” she said, adding that it was good example of how her dad operated. “… If he sees something that needs to be done, he figures out a way to get it done.”

Eventually, Powell took over as the Ford dealer in Danville when the previous dealer, a friend and fellow musician, James Norville, passed away, Patti Powell said.

In those early days, his business operated where the Danville Post Office is now and it was a fairly bare-bones operation. When a phone call came in, the receptionist would lean out the window of the second-story office and call down to a service technician that they had a phone call, she said.

In 1982, Powell moved his business to its current location along the Danville bypass near the intersection with Perryville Road.

Patti Powell said her father’s family isn’t very big — he had one sister, and his two children, Patti and her late sister Pam, didn’t have any children of their own. Patti Powell is married to Vince DiMartino, who has children, but “we have a small bench” of family, she said.

But Powell had many more family members if you count his employees — which he did, Patti Powell said.

“We’ve got a lot of long-time employees and I think that stems from the fact that dad has always felt that you have to take care of your customers, but you always have to take care of your employees, and everything else will take care of itself,” she said.

Powell didn’t have a lot of hobbies, his daughter said, “because he always wanted to see progress.”

“To him, seeing buildings get built and things getting accomplished — he got energized by that,” she said. “Nothing made him feel better than to get his blue jeans on and get out there and make things happen … he was a make-it-happen kind of guy.”

Powell was making things happen at his dealership on the day he fell on his hip, Patti Powell said. Her dad saw spot of oil on the floor of the service department and wanted to clean it up before it dirtied someone’s car or shoe.

“Rather than instructing one of the other techs to come over and clean it up … he does what Stuart Powell does and that’s do it himself.”

While he was cleaning up the oil, using his right foot to rub an absorbent mat on the spill, his left foot caught on a drain and he fell on his left hip, suffering multiple fractures in what was “a very painful injury,” Patti Powell said.

“We knew then that it was going to be a tough road, because he was going to have to be laid up six to eight weeks” without any pressure on or motion of his hip, she said.

Pneumonia developed, complicating some other medical conditions and ultimately leading to his death, she said. But even in the hospital, “he was telling nurses stories” and was “his comical, witty self,” she added. Everyone who did something for him, whether it was a nurse, a doctor or someone cleaning his room, “he thanked them very for helping him. And that was Stuart Powell.”

Patti Powell said it became clear while Powell was in the hospital that “his life was going to be compromised if he was able to get through the medical conditions he had.” Powell wouldn’t have been able to get around and work like he had his entire life.

“That was not Stuart Powell,” she said, her voice growing stronger. “Stuart Powell was a get-up-and-go-do-it-my-kind-of-way guy. It wouldn’t have been the Stuart Powell that we know if he had had to live a different (kind) of life.”

Patti Powell said her dad always told his family members there are three types of people in the world — “those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those that didn’t know what the hell just happened.”

“He said, ‘let’s always strive to be the type of people that make things happen,’” she said. “And he did.”

Stuart Powell was above all loyal — he stuck with the vendors he used at his dealership, with the Ford company, with his employees, with his family, Patti Powell said.

His wife of 67 years, JoAnn, has end-stage Alzheimer’s and has been living at McDowell Place for four years.

“My dad, up until being hospitalized, went to have lunch with her every day,” she said. “… He sticks with everything. He’s a loyal guy who sticks with everything. A gentleman.”

This story was updated with additional information at 9:45 p.m. Sept. 10.