Famed squadron voice goes silent: Van Kempen to be remembered Sunday at airport
"The year is 1925. Back from World War I, many young former fight pilots were trying to make a living in aviation. You are standing on a grass field holding your grandfather's hand, looking up and watching many mysterious and wonderful aerobatic things in the sky. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the scene we wish to recreate for you today!"
Those were the words of Jerry Van Kempen, narrator of the Red Baron Stearman Squadron from 1990-2004. Van Kempen passed away April 12 at age 93, in Alexandria, his hometown. A celebration of his life is set for Sunday, July 8, at the airport.
After a career in business, announcing auto races, hosting radio and television programs, and filling in as a traveling preacher, Van Kempen found his niche late in life, announcing airshows and providing a sound system. Spectators and performers enjoyed his stories and rapid-fire play-by-play announcing, but most of all they enjoyed his personality, which came through loud and clear.
Van Kempen quickly rose to airshow stardom. He was one of the best, if not the best announcer in the airshow entertainment industry.
His love for aviation began during World War II when he watched with envy the "Flying Sergeants" in his artillery battalion.
"They flew out each morning to spot the enemy, flying L-4s and 5s," Van Kempen would tell airshow crowds. He left the service in 1946 and returned to Minneapolis, where his parents were living.
He learned to fly at Lakeland Skyways at Wold Chamberlain Field (now Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport) on the GI Bill, soloing on Halloween Day.
"I remember sitting there at the end of the runway, waggling my ailerons to tell the tower I was ready for takeoff." Apparently, in those days there was only one-way radio communication between the tower and small general aviation aircraft.
Van Kempen was building flight hours and working for Mill City Aviation when a fellow flight student introduced him to his future wife and lifelong companion, Margaret. They married in 1949.
While Margaret was busy raising their three daughters — Mary, Ellen and Jeri — and working an 8-to-5 job as a secretary with the Alexandria School District, Van Kempen tried his hand at the concrete burial vault business, as a car salesman, as a sales representative for the local newspaper which won him national honors for his ideas, and as a dealer for Honda. But all along, Van Kempen held a burning and pent-up desire to talk and entertain, whether as a lay reader for the Episcopal Church, or announcing stock car races on weekends.
Throughout the years, Van Kempen said that his announcing style didn't change.
"I could play you a recording I made in 1956 at a race and you would know exactly who was announcing," he recalled. Van Kempen said that he announced the races in the exact same upbeat style that he later did at airshows, joking, "I'm the only person in this business all these years who hasn't improved!"
Van Kempen went on to co-emcee the Alexandria Jaycees annual telethon, "Jingle Bells;" a weekly radio program called the "Harland & Jerry Mess;" a weekly television program called "Just For Laughs;" the annual Governor's Fishing Opener; an appearance by then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey; an annual national press party; and even a "This Is Your Life"-type program.
Van Kempen's introduction to the airshow entertainment industry came in 1979 when Bellanca Aircraft sponsored its first airshow during a convention of Bellanca owners in Alexandria. At that show, headliner Duane Cole feared the rookie announcer, and supplied his own professional narrator. Van Kempen announced the rest of the show.
"I didn't blame Cole at the time," he said. "After all, I had never narrated an act in my life before then. Cole did what he should have done. Having a narrator you can trust is very important to a performer's presentation."
From there, Van Kempen narrated for performers who were also just starting out. Red Baron Pizza hired him towards the end of the 1988 season to narrate the Red Baron Stearman Squadron, and he narrated for the team's remaining three shows that year. Beginning in 1990, he narrated the team's entire 18-show schedule, which grew to 25 shows per season.
Audiences could not help but come away from Van Kempen's performances with a smile and having learned something about aviation history they hadn't known before.
"If I don't bring our fans back in time to the barnstorming era, and let them fantasize, I feel I've let them down because that is the essence, the flavor of each and every Red Baron performance," Van Kempen said.
Some time after the motion picture "Apollo 13" came out, astronaut James Lovell, who was portrayed in the film, attended the Chicago Air & Water Show, which Van Kempen narrated. Van Kempen described Lovell as a great American who learned to fly in the Stearman biplane and who went on to fly to the moon and back. Margaret Van Kempen was there, too, arranging her husband's notes and handing out autographed photos to children.
"Margaret was a real trooper! She's the best P.R. person Red Baron could have," Van Kempen said.
His wife would always tell him, "If this doesn't work, we will try something else that will."
Toward the pinnacle of their careers, Margaret Van Kempen commented: "Life is the best it's ever been. This is a great time in our lives. I like being outdoors and traveling with Van."
The Van Kempens' most memorable show was in California on May 1, 1993, when a crowd of 500,000 spectators joined in to sing "Happy Birthday" to Margaret. Their most unpleasant show was when they witnessed their first accident, then again in 1998 when two members of the Red Baron Stearman Squadron collided in midair at a Florida airshow. Two pilots were killed.
This was a difficult time for the team and its corporate sponsor, Marshall-based Schwan Food Co., but they kept going until January 2008 when — after 28 years and 2,000 performances — the team disbanded. The Van Kempens had retired by then, leaving the business in 2004 at age 79.
Among the many awards the Van Kempens shared was the "Bill Barber Award For Showmanship," and the "Art Scholl Showmanship Award." The greatest award bestowed on Van Kempen as an individual performer was the "ICAS Sword of Excellence" in 2002 by the International Council of Air Shows.
A version of this story first appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Midwest Flyer magazine, and at www.midwestflyer.com.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Celebration of life for Jerry Van Kempen
WHEN: Sunday, July 8, visitation at 1 p.m., service at 2 p.m.
WHERE: Chandler Field-Alexandria Municipal Airport, Alexandria