Aviation Pioneers of Sheridan, WY

Aviation_Pioneers of Sheridan, Wyoming book_cover___B


August 2, 2019

I recently read the obituary of a friend of mine, the late Hanley Cohn Jr, who died at Sheridan Manor on July 22, 2019. Perhaps not many people in my hometown of Sheridan will have heard of him, so I was moved to share what this humble man meant to me.

In 2006, my mentor Jane Wohl connected me with Hanley, who wanted to commission a biography of his father, Hanley Cohn Sr., a pioneer aviator of northern Wyoming.

Over the course of a few months I put together a manuscript from the Cohn family collections, writing every evening after I got home from my day job at the Sheridan County Museum. It was my first contract writing gig, and it proved to be an adventure in research, writing, design, and self-publishing. Among many lessons, the project showed me that there are incredibly compelling stories hidden in the hearts of everyday people.

Hanley Cohn Sr.’s story was as engaging as it was tragic: A young, ambitious man fascinated with technology embarks on a career as an aviator, leaving behind a job in the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad shops and side work as a projector operator at the Lotus Theater on Main Street. He secures flight training, barnstorms across Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska, lives with his young family in a hangar at the brand new county airport, and survives a close call in a plane crash near Cody, Wyoming. In 1934, he brings the first airmail to Sheridan, Wyoming, which was a major public celebration. Then in October 1935, while test flying a new more powerful airplane near Cheyenne (another pilot was at the controls), the wings ice up and the plane crashes, ending his life at age 31.

Hanley Sr. left behind his wife Pearl Ekwall Cohn and two sons, Harry and his older brother Hanley Jr., who was just nine years old at the time of the accident. For 70 years, Hanley Jr. carried this story of his father, who was clearly his hero. One 1934 news story recorded Hanley Jr. or his brother Harry dancing in front of the airport hangar as their father’s plane flew into view, shouting “Here comes my Daddy!”

After the accident Pearl Cohn returned to Sheridan. She bought a home at 1150 Emerson Street, and married David Madison. I don’t recall how the rest of Hanley Jr.’s childhood played out. As an adult, he worked for many years in printing shops in California. Then in his late seventies, Hanley Jr. returned to his childhood hometown and found a part time job at Presto Print. He used a small inheritance from his aunt Velda McNair Cohn to finally seek out a writer to publish the story of his father, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Sheridan County Airport. During the airport celebration and air show, we sold copies of the book from in front of the airport hangar. I remember watching sport planes make low passes along the runway where Hanley spent an exciting chapter of his boyhood. It meant a lot to Hanley to see this biography completed as a memorial to his father, and it was a joy for me to play a part in recording this history of how Sheridan became connected to the rest of the country by air.

Hanley quietly lived out the rest of years in a series of senior apartments in Sheridan. I last saw him in 2017, 11 years after I’d first met him. He was a lifelong bachelor, and didn’t drive, so he used public transportation to get around town. On the walls of his apartment he had a gallery of historical and family photos: the past meant a lot to him. He told me his major pastime was watching television, which made me a bit sad, given his affable personality, humility, and capacity for friendship.

Hanley passed away in July, 2019, at the age of 93. His life is a reminder of the opportunities that we all have to befriend the senior citizens of our communities. Our elders have tremendous value as keepers of stories, and for many other reasons. When we take the time to listen it helps combat potential loneliness of old age, and gives young people a chance to build a sense of community.

In my case, it gave me the opportunity to start my career as a writer and historian. I’ll always be grateful to Hanley for entrusting a young rookie writer with his family story.

Read the full manuscript Aviation Pioneers of Sheridan, Wyoming 1919-1935 here. (The text says the manuscript is copyrighted by the Sheridan County Historical Society, so it is made available here under fair use/educational purposes.)

Aviation Pioneers of Sheridan, Wyoming by Gregory Nickerson