ZELIENOPLE – Ken Scholter seems to have taken a most mysterious route back to the Pittsburgh-Butler Regional Airport.
The late airport manager of more than three decades — so beloved that the Terminal Building still carries his name on a plaque — also apparently was a prolific amateur photographer who documented the trials, victories and happenstance that unfolded at the airport under his watch.
But no one knew about the late airport manager’s historic photo collection until some current airport enthusiasts rolled the dice on an Internet auction and won.
Airport resident Jeff Seruset, who has a long love of acquiring notables and recent interest in online auctions, late last year came across a particular lot that caught his attention: A grouping of items that originated from the estate of John A. “Drew” Martin of Butler, a Navy veteran, local pilot and longtime Armco employee who died in June 2016.
The auction site as standard policy shows only the boxes and a couple contents, which in this case included hints the boxes were relevant to the airport.
“The big clue?” Seruset said, “There’s a brochure in there from the airport’s 1929 grand opening. I think that’s the only one left in existence.”
But the tease was all they got: Bidders had no idea what was actually inside the boxes.
The mystery alone was enough to entice Seruset and Butler County Airport Authority Board member Jim Opalka to bid in the Dec. 1 auction. Sight unseen, the two men offered bids for the boxes’ contents, winning all but two of the lots.
“Being that I live here at the airport, I felt they shouldn’t get away,” Seruset said. “I felt sort of a duty.”
Opalka described himself as “a kid at Christmas” the day he picked up the boxes from a warehouse in Zelienople and drove them home for his first opportunity to look inside.
“They were just a couple of dirty, little boxes,” Opalka said. “But you know what they say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
The longtime history lover could not be more pleased with the find… literally hundreds of photographs that map out the planes, places and people that define the airport’s history.
A good share are fragile black and white snapshots, dating back to before the airport was officially dedicated in 1929. Most of the photos appear to have been taken between 1930 and 1950 when both photography and aviation were developing in exciting ways.
“I kept thinking, and realizing what these guys had to go through to get these pictures,” Seruset said. “There’s some great shots and important people in there.”
The photographs capture the gamut of airport life all the way through a catalog of color photos that include some of the people you will find on the airport grounds today. Scholter died in 2002 at age 91.
“There was a form in there that said it was to be given to Jim Opalka,” Opalka said. “I read it. And for a second, I didn’t realize that was me.”
About half of the photos carry handwritten notations on the back to identify the place and time they were taken. Some of the photos are neatly preserved in albums, others are loose. While most are marked to have been taken by Scholter, some appear to be professionally commissioned.
“Somehow all of that stuff got to Drew (Martin),” Seruset said.
Seruset poured through his share of the boxes for eight days before gifting the collection to the airport . Coupled with Opalka’s win and a thick album the airport already had accumulated, the collection now will be cataloged then displayed on the airport campus in some fashion.
“Maybe a history wall,” said airport manager Ike Kelly, who is able to recognize and speak authoritatively on the contents of the majority of the pictures.
And there are still at least two more boxes out there that someone else won during the auction. The airport, Kelly said, would consider purchase of those items also if they could locate the winning bidder. After all, you just don’t know what’s inside them.