Rename Indianapolis International, retired soldiers say

A group of retired soldiers hopes to revive the name of an Indiana war hero by naming Indianapolis' airport for him — again.

H. Weir Cook's name once graced the airport, but the honor was yanked years ago, and by now Cook is largely forgotten.

That's not right, said Joe Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America, Indiana Council of Chapters, and the man leading the Cook crusade. "Weir Cook was a hero, and we need to elevate our heroes."

Ryan, a 76-year-old retired Army colonel, and other retired officers have gathered nearly 1,000 signatures at VFW halls across the state and plan to take their case to city officials later this year.

Other U.S. cities lately have changed their airports' names to honor hometown heroes, such as Atlanta (which added the name of former Mayor Maynard Jackson), Baltimore (Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall) and New Orleans (musician Louis Armstrong).

H. Weir Cook, born in Hancock County, Ind., in 1892, was an aviator who shot down seven German planes during World War I. He was middle-aged when World War II broke out, but he volunteered and was killed in a plane crash near an air base in New Caledonia in 1943.

The next year, Indianapolis named its airport for him.

International Indy

Flash forward to the mid-1970s. Indianapolis' burghers, image-conscious and sensitive to the "India-no-place" jokes, were bent on reshaping the city into a more vibrant place. A revived Downtown, an NFL team and other urbane trappings would come. But first, a jazzy new airport, one with a jazzy new name. In 1976, quaint Weir Cook gave way to big-time Indianapolis International.

"We wanted to build prestige," said Beurt SerVaas, a business leader and then-president of the City-County Council.

With the nation still hung over from Vietnam, deep-sixing a war hero's memory created little controversy.

"We didn't catch any static at all," said Michael Schaefer, a business and civic leader and the one surviving member of the Airport Authority board that approved the name change in 1976. "Indianapolis was trying to get on the map. Everybody understood that. And it was not such a patriotic time."

Cook's son and namesake was hurt by the decision, said his daughter Maureen Pinnick, Franklin, "but he was not one to cause a fuss."

Who has the power?

Renaming the airport is up to the Indianapolis Airport Authority, an eight-member board appointed by the Indianapolis mayor and other officials.

In 2001, the board resisted an effort by residents of Cook's hometown of Wilkinson to restore the flier's name. The outlook for Cook fans appears similarly bleak today.

"The city fathers before me saw a need to change the name to Indianapolis International," said Lacy Johnson, the Airport Authority president. "There were legitimate reasons, which had to do with marketing. The name is Indianapolis International, and I think it's a fantastic name."

The airport backs it up, at least somewhat, with planes coming from and going to foreign lands: Air Canada Jazz offers twice-dailies to Toronto; Frontier Airlines has a once-a-week to Cancun; Cargolux and FedEx fly cargo to and from Europe and Asia.

Ryan said he hopes the time is ripe to bring Cook's name back: Post 9/11, he said, Americans are more patriotic, united in support of the troops, if not the war. And the airport is in flux, in the late stages of a $1 billion makeover.

He launched the effort publicly last month at a hearing at the Statehouse before the Commission on Military and Veterans Affairs. Indiana state Sen. Thomas J. Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, the commission's chairman, nodded attentively but later said he planned no action.

"I don't think the state should be mandating to the city what it should call its airport," Wyss said.

In February, Ryan thought he'd won a battle when Gov. Mitch Daniels hung Cook's portrait in his office. During a brief ceremony, Daniels noted Cook was a contemporary of such flight pioneers as Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Orville Wright and Eddie Rickenbacker and was "every bit the legend that any of them was." All four have airports named for them.

But Daniels stopped short of suggesting the Indianapolis airport's name be changed.

"The governor said the airport was named for (Cook) for a long time, which was appropriate, and that now we should honor Cook and his memory in other ways," such as hanging his portrait in the new airport terminal, said Daniels' press secretary, Jane Jankowski.

Cook was a member of Rickenbacker's famous 94th Aero Squadron and later commanded the squadron. He once attacked three enemy planes single-handedly, shooting down one and dispersing the others. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with an oak leaf cluster and the French Croix de Guerre.

But his slide into obscurity has been steady.

In 1993, long after his name came off the airport, a plaque commemorating Cook was removed from the main lobby and hung up in baggage claim.

It's the way of the world, dust to dust, said SerVaas, who is 87, retired from politics and philosophical. To take Indianapolis International back to Weir Cook would be "a step backward," he said.

Several years ago, the large room where Indianapolis' City-County Council holds its meetings was named for SerVaas. He has no illusions it's for keeps.

And so what, he said. "They'll change it, and I won't be alive to care."

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