Parker Wickham, who converted part of his family’s potato farm into an airfield after World War II and pursued a lifelong love of things mechanical, particularly rare antique cars, died at his Mattituck home Friday surrounded by family. He was 90.
“He was one of the finest human beings I ever met,” said former New Suffolk resident David Christianson, who at age 16 began an eight-year relationship with Mr. Wickham, assisting in the restoration of some of the antique cars in his collection. Now a systems analyst in California, Mr. Christianson flew home just for Mr. Wickham’s funeral at Mattituck Presbyterian Church Tuesday.
“He was my third grandfather,” said Mr. Christianson. “He made everybody feel as if they were important.”
J. Parker Wickham was born June 29, 1920, to Cedric Hull Wickham, who earned an engineering degree at Pratt Institute and worked on New York bridges, and Claretta Schneck Wickham. After graduating from Mattituck High School, he decided against college and instead moved to California, where he found employment in 1939 at the Polaris Flight Academy in the Mojave Desert. Through an agreement between the U.S. and Great Britain, the academy trained British pilots. To maintain a staff of aviation workers who would not be lost to active duty, the Army Air Corps, which later became the Air Force, inducted the men working for the academy.
Mr. Wickham, who served from 1939 to 1945, was responsible for the facility’s training aircraft. He managed a staff of 200 women who maintained the planes.
In an August 15, 1942, letter to his parents, Mr. Wickham wrote, “We now have 115 planes and will later have a total of 200 basic trainers. I will then have a personnel of 375 men if I can find that many. The housing conditions … are terrible, making it extremely hard to obtain help.”
While in California, he married Edith Ann Dahl at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles. The cemetery is best known today as the final resting place of Hollywood celebrities such as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and recently Elizabeth Taylor. In a biography prepared for the local history collection at Cutchogue New Suffolk Library, Mr. Wickham said his boarding house landlady had recommended Forest Lawn because its two chapels were open to all faiths and quite affordable.
He dreamed of opening an airport in Mattituck and, when he asked for part of the farm, his father said, “Come on home. There’s no money in potatoes anyhow.”
The Wickhams ran newspaper ads to alert the community to their aviation plans and, after hearing no objections, laid out a grass strip. Parker Wickham maintained the strip, paved over long ago, with a lawn mower made from three automobile rear ends. The 2,200-foot runway, just off New Suffolk Avenue, follows a north-south track down to the bay.
Mr. Wickham drew on his knowledge of aviation mechanics to open an aircraft engine overhaul shop in 1946. The company, which later became Teledyne Mattituck Services, developed a national reputation for the quality of its work on piston-driven engines.
He continued to live near the Mattituck Airbase. “I’m not one to waste time commuting,” he told The Suffolk-Times in a 2005 story. He retired after 25 years and passed the business to his son, Jay.
While they still own the airport, the Wickham family sold the engine business in 1984, bought it back again four years later, then sold it to the Teledyne Corporation, an aerospace and defense firm, in 1999. Last December, Technify Motors, a Chinese supplier of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, announced a deal to purchase Teledyne Mattituck Services as part of a $186 million cash deal that includes Teledyne Continental Motors, an engine manufacturing company. The sale closed just last week.
A man ahead of his time, Mr. Wickham constructed a solar-powered house on airbase grounds in the 1960s. It featured floor-to-ceiling windows, special insulation and rooftop solar panels. Jay Wickham lives there now.
Parker Wickham was known for his collection of unusual antique autos. He began collecting in the 1980s and at one time had between 50 and 60 vehicles in various states of repair, according to Mr. Christianson.
“He had entertained the idea of restoring old planes, but they take up too much space,” he said.
With no interest in Packards or DeSotos, Mr. Wickham owned a 1901 Rochester Steamer, a 1910 Elmore and an electric-powered Renault, among others.
When Mr. Christianson married on May 1, 2005, on a field close to the airport, he drove his wife-to-be to the ceremony in the back of a 1928 Ruxton he and Mr. Wickham had restored.
At the time, Mr. Christianson was the only person who knew how to drive the car, so a fabric drape was installed between the driver and passenger compartments in keeping with the tradition that the groom should not see the bride before the ceremony.
Mr. Wickham recently sold part of his collection to an auto museum in Fairbanks, Alaska. The new two-bay garage recently constructed on the Cutchogue Village Green will house a 1926 Model A truck he donated.
“He never fought change,” said Mr. Christianson. “He embraced progress and change, however it came. He was awesome.”