Advocate of Wright brothers historical sites dies

Jerry Sharkey, a retired Montgomery County employee and a one-time high school math teacher, died of heart failure, said his sister, Mary Anne Sharkey. He was 71.

Sharkey, a founder of the nonprofit Aviation Trail Inc., had the idea to create the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park, officials said.

The Dayton native joined forces with local leaders to lobby Congress and the National Park Service to assemble scattered sites as historic places of national significance worth federal preservation..

The task was not always popular and had naysayers, but President George H.W. Bush signed the law creating the park in 1992, officials said.

“It was not an easy task by any means,” said Sharkey, his sister and a former Dayton Daily News reporter who lives in Vermillion Twp. near Lorain in northern Ohio. “It took years of work.”

Among those sites he fought to protect was the Wright brothers sole remaining bicycle shop in Dayton on Williams Street off West Third, a neighborhood area the city had targeted for demolition decades earlier, officials said.

“The city of Dayton was getting ready to tear down the homes in that area and Jerry, not only lobbied to stop it, but literally stood in the street to keep the bulldozers from taking down the historic building,” she said in an email Monday.

Her brother bought the shop for $10,000, and as a condition of creating the national park gave it to the National Park Service, which “broke Jerry’s heart,” Mary Anne Sharkey said.

Still, she said, “he was thrilled the legacy of the Wright brothers was finally being recognized in their home town of Dayton. He felt that the Wright brothers did not get their due in their own town. He was upset that Kitty Hawk, (North Carolina) took all the credit for the location of the first flight.” Much of the work to perfect the airplane into a practical invention happened in Dayton, she said.

“They were the first aeronautical engineers and the first test pilots yet Dayton seemed to largely ignore them over the years,” she said.

Sharkey was outspoken in his advocacy for the historic sites, said Aviation Trail president Marvin Christian. The park also honors Paul Laurence Dunbar, a noted poet and friend of the Wrights.

Tom D. Crouch, a Dayton native and senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., said Sharkey persuaded him to join the drive to create the historic district.

“I’d tell people that Jerry was one of those people without whom I don’t think the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park would exist,” Crouch said. “The impact of what the Wright brothers had done was really not as appreciated or commemorated as it should have been and I think Jerry was determined to make sure it was done.”

Among others, Sharkey worked with U.S. District Judge Walter H. Rice, former U.S. Rep. Dave Hobson, former Dayton Daily News publisher Brad Tillson and Michael Gessel, who then worked for former U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, to make the park a reality.

“The idea advanced because (Sharkey) pushed it,” said Gessel, now Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs. “He was instrumental in saving the buildings that became the fabric of the park.

“He pulled these people together and tirelessly worked to energize everybody. He was an enormous foundation of energy and enthusiasm and did not know how to take no for an answer.”

Rice said Sharkey was upset when Dayton lost a key piece of its history decades ago at the time auto magnate Henry Ford transported one of the Wright brothers bicycle shops to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.

“He thought that was outrageous, and we had a history here that not only could help the economic viability of the community but restore some pride in Dayton citizens,” Rice said.

Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, said Sharkey “reawakened” the community to the importance of the Wright brothers legacy.

“Jerry was the fella who had such a high degree of emotion for making this park a reality,” he said.

Visitation was set from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Westbrock Funeral Home, 1712 Wayne Ave. in Dayton. A funeral mass is set for noon Thursday at St. Albert the Great Catholic Church, 3033 Far Hills Ave. in Kettering.