The Columbus Dispatch
Driving Park group wants to add museum honoring Rickenbacker, others BIGGER DREAMS
The after-school program at the Rickenbacker Woods Learning Center was all about the holidays on a recent Friday afternoon, with two kids dressed in pajamas, a bubble-maker sending suds airborne and a girl wearing two ornaments on her shirt. ● Christmas songs played in the background while blue, orange, red and green dots of light swirled around the ceiling. ● Usually the center and its tutors focus on homework and other activities. But ’tis the season, so season on, right?
The learning center, so full of cheer on this day, sits behind World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s house on East Livingston Avenue in the heart of the Driving Park neighborhood.
Operating out of a converted garage, the afterschool program that started in 2017 is a cornerstone program of the nonprofit Rickenbacker Woods Foundation, which also oversees the house.
But Michael Aaron, 41, foundation director and a long-time Driving Park resident, has even bigger dreams for the property: converting the tiny, gold Rickenbacker house into a museum, a goal that dates back decades.
Rickenbacker, the famous pilot who later raced cars and became the president of Eastern Air Lines, died in 1973. The house dates to 1893, Aaron said.
Aaron, 41, said the foundation this month received a $14,900 grant from the Columbus Foundation, a big step toward the effort. He said he needs to raise another $35,000 for matching money to unlock a $100,000 state grant that would finally get the museum work off the ground. That would help pay for architectural and exhibit design for the museum, plus have some money left over for electrical work, he said.
Aaron’s vision is not a museum filled with period furniture but a digital one that would highlight not only Rickenbacker’s extraordinary life but also the history of the Driving Park neighborhood.
“We think that history is very important. Driving Park itself has a very interesting history,” he said.
The history includes the Driving Park track, where horses and, later, cars raced. It includes the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black group of World War Ii-era fighter pilots who lived in the area and flew out of the former Lockbourne Army Airfield — now Rickenbacker International Airport — beginning in 1946.
It includes Granville T. Woods, a Black inventor who had more than 150 patents, many of them dealing with electronics. Among them was a communications system between railroad stations and moving trains. He sold patents to companies such as General Electric and Bell Telephone. The foundation is named, in part, after him.
Local icons such as the late James Johnson, a longtime Driving Park neighborhood leader, are part of the area’s history, too.
On this recent Friday, though, Aaron tried to focus on the present as he walked around the learning center, where kids do homework, play and go on field trips to places such as the Ohio Village on the grounds of the Ohio History Center.
Its doors opened in April 2017, relying on grants and donors to keep it running. (The annual operating budget is $8,000.) It is free to parents.
“Our ‘Columbus Way’ of doing things has a lot more grit and determination,” Aaron said.
The center is generally for kids in secondthrough fifth-grades. This year, though, its 15 children include a kindergartener, two first-graders and a sixthgrader.
On the recent party before winter break, Maia Farkas, 10, wore wearing sparkly red and gold ornaments on her shirt. She said the favorite part of her day is snack time.
Next to her was 11-year-old Harlyn Jones. His favorite activity? “Playing football,” he said.
Nearby Capital University provides tutors for the learning center through its Bonner Leader Program, which places students in nonprofit organizations.
Quinn Gable, a 20-year-old public relations major from Lima, is one of the tutors and helps at the learning center on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the days when it is open.
“I love it,” said Gable, who helps students with homework. “I plan my school schedule around coming to this site.”
On this day, Emily Rials, an assistant site director with Food Rescue US, arrived at the center to help bring chocolate milk to the kids. Rials said the national nonprofit comes at last once a week, sometimes picking up food from Kolache Republic, which makes pastries on South High Street just west of German Village, and other locations.
“We brought soup last week,” Rials said.
Carla Fountaine, a Rickenbacker Woods board member, said the afterschool program — officially known as the Inborn Excellence Initiative, now in its fourth year — is important for the neighborhood.
But the foundation has gotten involved in other initiatives as well, she said, including the Livingston Healing Garden, where vegetables are grown, as well as monthly food giveaways through the Mid-ohio Food Collective.
Aaron said it has also worked with Hot Chicken Takeover for food giveaways during the height of the pandemic, and it fed more than 100 families for Thanksgiving with Franklin County Commissioner Erica Crawley.
And then there’s the concept for the museum.
The city of Columbus bought the Rickenbacker House at 1334 E. Livingston Ave. in 1998 for $42,000. And in 2001, the city used money from a $475,000 state grant to buy property around the Rickenbacker House for a museum that also would honor Woods.
The museum didn’t happen then. Aaron said a group unsuccessfully tried to raise money more than a decade ago for an $8 million museum.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said. “Around 2008, when the economic collapse happened, it was difficult to raise the funds.”
Backers did raise enough to renovate the home’s exterior, shore up the foundation and add a new slate roof.
“They got it set up to take to the next level,” Aaron said.
Now, it’s about taking that next step. This story is part of the Dispatch’s Mobile Newsroom initiative, which is currently focused on Driving Park and surrounding neighborhoods. Visit our reporters at the Driving Park branch library. email@example.com @Markferenchik