There was no red ribbon to cut, which was handy because there also were no scissors to cut it with. In a ceremony that took on the Sun ’n Fun volunteering spirit of “just winging it,” the ceremony’s attendees—mostly advancing in years—shared the tales of how the fly-in began and grew. The crowd stood on a floor of pavers, and many of the attendees had found the bricks with their own names. This was the dedication of Henderson Heritage plaza, and it seemed like most of the pioneers were there, whether in person or in spirit.
There were serious stories about the struggle to establish relationships with the first vendors, and lighter ones like when some ladies threw a party to dedicate the new female shower house in the campground. Most turned out in pearls and snacks were served on china. One lady – name withheld – turned up wearing a towel and lathered up the party! In the decades that followed, lasting memories and friendships were forged, and this group has rallied to the Expo’s aid when it was needed most.
In the darkest days of COVID, Sun ’n Fun was in a bad way, according to “Lites” Leenhouse, who handles the reins of Sun ’n Fun today. “We were facing major financial struggles, and we faced tribulations just to keep operating,” he said. The founders stepped up. “Then a donor—I’ll never know who it was—gave $10,000 for this, and Barbara Hart put up $15,000 as well.
Named for Sun ’n Fun founder and longtime chairman Billy Henderson, the plaza is the first patch of land attendees step into once they clear the main ticket booths. Anchored by a Piedmont airlines 727 and the Lockheed XFV Pogo, it is ringed by home-built aircraft and prototypes that did or could have blazed the way for developing lines of aircraft. Displays include the Stits Playmate, the Cirrus VK-30 and the PiperJet. The plaza, as it sits, is a bit disheveled and could use some tender loving care. Leenhouse outlined a vision for the plaza moving forward. “We’re thrilled to have this as the starting point for the plaza, and in the future you’ll see things shift around. We’ll have a great water garden and airplanes all around.”
It will be a fitting memorial to those who poured so much of themselves into making the event what it is today.