Airport commission chairman to step down after 43 years
Heck retires after building airport into economic engine for Rhinelander area

April 6, 2018

By Jamie Taylor & Heather Schaefer

River News

Imagine for a moment what Rhinelander would look like without large employers like Printpack or the numerous businesses headquartered in the air industrial park on U.S. Highway 8. Ponder for a second what life would be like for local residents if there was no Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport, no passenger jet service capable of transporting travelers from Rhinelander to Minneapolis in 30 minutes.

If this scenario were a reality, it's inarguable this would be a much smaller community with much less to offer in terms of jobs and services. And, most likely, business travel, vacation trips and visits to grandchildren would require a drive to the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee or another regional airport.

To be sure, the entire economic landscape of Oneida County would be quite different if not for the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport and it's universally accepted the airport would not exist without the determined salesmanship of Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport Commission chairman Robert G. Heck, who is retiring this spring after 43 years of service.

Heck sent a letter to Mayor Dick Johns earlier this spring announcing his decision to resign from the commission and come Monday evening he hopes to pass the stick to Pat Marquardt, manager of the Rhinelander Printpack plant, who is expected to be appointed to serve out the remainder of his five-year term.

New faces

In a fitting bit of symmetry, Heck is bidding farewell to the airport commission at nearly the same time as airport director Joe Brauer takes his leave. Brauer is retiring next month after 28 years keeping the planes flying.

The timing is no accident. In a March interview with The Lakeland Times' sister paper The Northwoods River News, the two men confirmed they've been discussing retirement for about two years now but wanted to make sure the airport would be in good hands before taking that step.

"It was time to find the right person," Heck said. "I'm 81, and I'm going to be 82, and I've devoted over 2,000 hours work to the project. The main thing is I really felt that we had the right team in place, trying to get in place and will be in place. We have just a tremendous person to replace Joe (Rhinelander native Matt Leitner has been tabbed as the next airport director) and Sherrie (Williamson, assistant airport director) is still here, that was important. Two of our commissioners are still here, Brad (Kowieski) and Bev (Long), and they have been with us for quite some time."

Brauer was blunt when asked to explain the impact Heck has had on the airport and, by extension, the community.

"I can't imagine what this place would look like without Bob Heck," he said. "The way things were going we'd probably still be in the old terminal. I don't even know if we'd have airline service."

'Give me a chance'

In 1975, the 27-year-old airport was equipped with a 3,482-square foot terminal (little more than a 10th of the size of the current terminal) and an International Harvester Cub Cadet tractor.

The airport was serviced by North Central Airlines at the time, but airline board chairman Arthur E.A. Mueller was starting to wonder whether the aging regional airport was worth it. Modern jet technology meant passenger planes were bigger and faster and required longer, wider runways and bigger terminals to service a growing number of customers.

Heck and Mueller knew each other professionally. Heck worked for a time at the Wausau brokerage firm The Marshal Co. which was headquartered in a building owned by Mueller.

After Heck moved his family to Rhinelander in 1962, he stayed in touch with Mueller and the two would occasionally meet to discuss business.

It was during one such meeting in 1975 that Mueller divulged to Heck that North Central Airlines was considering halting service to Rhinelander. Nothing had been done to modernize the aging airport and North Central Airlines saw the writing on the wall with planes getting bigger, jets getting faster and cheaper airfares leading to more enplanements. Airports had to modernize or risk losing service.

'I said wait a minute, wait a minute, don't do that," Heck recalled. "I said 'why don't you give me a chance to see what could be done.'"

Mueller agreed and Heck went to work rallying government and business leaders to secure the funding that would first keep the airport running and eventually transform it into the modern hub of aviation it is today.

Spend any time in a boardroom with Heck and it will become apparent how he was able to convince so many people and organizations to support the airport. While exceedingly generous and affable, his steely gaze and commanding voice leave a powerful impression, as does his fist when it smacks the wood table as he tells story after story about the various meetings and negotiations that led to numerous airport upgrades.

Heck is so deeply tied to the airport that Brauer refers to the main terminal as "the house that Bob built" but Heck is quick to share credit. He called Brauer the best director the airport has ever had and thanked his family, his wife of nearly 57 years, June, and their five children, for their steadfast support through the years.

"I couldn't have done it without them," he said.

Asked what Heck has meant to the airport and the community, Johns, who will preside over Monday's City Council meeting for the last time before his own retirement, responded with three words. "Oh. My. God," he said, drawing each word out. "Without Bob Heck, Rhinelander would never of had an airport the way it is today. He is such a tremendous asset to the city of Rhinelander and I don't know what we would have done without him."

Oneida County board chairman Dave Hintz echoed Johns' sentiments.

"Bob Heck literally saved the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport from extinction," he said. "Thanks to the vision and efforts of Bob Heck our airport now encompasses 1,259 acres, includes a modern terminal and serves 23,000 departing commercial passengers annually."

Heck said he's pleased the City Council will accept his resignation and appoint his successor on the same day Johns ends his equally lengthy career in public service. Very likely, the motion to appoint Heck's successor will be Johns final official act as mayor.

"That couldn't have been more perfect," Heck said. "He's done, and he really wanted to make sure that he had a say. I had been his previous appointment, because the city had the appointment, if you will, so it was just a natural thing. I'm tickled pink about that."

"Personally, I hate to see Bob go, I really do," Johns said. "And that is sincere for the job he's done. But I can understand it, we're both about the same age, and that's why I'm getting out."

'It took a lot of work'

When Heck took over the airport commission, the airport consisting an old terminal building and three or four hangars, and every plane flying in and out was propeller-driven. This included the scheduled airline service.

Expanding the airport to bring it into the jet age required longer runways, which led to doubling the size of the facility. In some cases, the people living where the airport needed to grow voluntarily sold their property, others required more convincing.

Heck vividly remembers a woman whose house was right in the middle of where the main runway had to go.

"This was a very unhappy lady who wanted to do things I'm not going to repeat, but she was not happy with Bob Heck, and/or the people that were around me," he said. "But, it had to be done, that was literally goofing up the whole thing and we had to get that runway through, which we did."

Brauer prompted Heck to tell a story about a visit he and Al Foley had with the woman during the negotiation process.

"She met me on the porch with a shotgun and a German shepherd," Heck said. "And she said, 'Heck, you S.O.B., you're going down.' I remember I said to Al Foley 'what do you think?' and he said 'I think we should get the hell out of here.'"

It took a lot of work involving a lot of people, but the story had "a happy ending," he said.

"We got her a much nicer house then she had, without question," he said. "And literally, she didn't even argue that. It was the city and the state, I don't know all the politics (that went into) all of that, but they made sure because of what she had threatened to do."

Part of the expansion of the airport led to the abandonment of one of the original runways, which eventually led to the sale of the old approach. That area later became the airport industrial park.

In addition to the new, longer runways, over time Heck was able to secure funding for approaches and parallel taxiways and all of the other additional facilities the airport now boasts.

"It's a very functional airport, a beautiful airport, and we're really proud of it," Heck said, adding that the dedication of the new terminal building was the proudest moment in his tenure on the commission.

One thing he had to fight very hard for is something anyone who a flies into the airport takes for granted: the baggage carousel. It might seem outdated by what is at larger airports now, but in 1975 it was beyond what other airports Rhinelander's size had.

"I had gone through about 12 airports, and I checked every aspect that these airports had or didn't have," Heck said. "Most of them had what North Central used to do, is they would get the stuff off (the plane) and behind almost like a counter where people would come over and wait for them to slam it into it, it was a sliding door, and people would pick up their luggage. I didn't see one anywhere else, but knew I wanted a carousel. I really pounded hard on that. And I knew exactly where I wanted it."

Of course, Heck sealed the deal and the carousel was installed. It's another example of the care and attention to detail he has put into the airport. The same is true of his decision to recommend Marquardt as the next chairman.

Johns said he's grateful Heck and Brauer took the time to make sure capable replacements would be in place before retiring.

"I met with Pat Marquardt, who is a fine gentleman, he's got some background in the issues," Johns said. "And I understand the new airport manager they have hired will be a tremendous asset to the city, and he's a city boy. I understand that is going to work well, so we'll do all right."

A Philadelphia native who has lived in Rhinelander for 30 years, Marquardt is well aware of the size of the shoes he is being asked to fill.

"What (Bob) has done over his years has just been unbelievable," he said. "There is not enough time in my lifetime left to build what Bob has built over the years."

While he's handing over his seat on the commission, Heck said he will continue to keep a watchful eye on the airport and do what he can to support this next generation that will carry it into the future.

"I love the community, my whole family does, and I told Pat anytime you have a question or something like that give me a call," he said.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at