Godspeed, first lady of flight

Kay Doherty poses with her Ercoupe plane in the early 1960s. She confided to being a “wingwalker” as a young woman. (Photo submitted)

Kay Doherty poses with her Ercoupe plane in the early 1960s. She confided to being a “wingwalker” as a young woman. (Photo submitted)

 

 

Kay Doherty grew Forest Lake Airport

Silent movie actor Richard Arlen vists Tom and Kay Doherty and Daniel DePonti at the Forest Lake Airport. (Photo submitted)

Silent movie actor Richard Arlen vists Tom and Kay Doherty and Daniel DePonti at the Forest Lake Airport. (Photo submitted)

Clint Riese
News Editor

The last member of Forest Lake’s first family of flight has taken to the skies for good.

Kay Doherty passed away last Thursday at her home, a stone’s throw from the airport her family owned for more than three decades.

A Mass of Christian burial was held this Wednesday at the Church of Saint Peter, Forest Lake.

Airport Takes Off

The Doherty chapter of the Forest Lake Airport’s history began in 1967, though the full story dates to 1941. It was that year when Angelo “Shorty” DePonti established a modest airport along Highway 61.

Catherine “Kay” Chopp’s first husband, Al DePonti, was Shorty’s brother. Al and Kay had a son, Daniel “Danny” Angelo DePonti before Al passed away in the early 1950s.

In 1957, Kay married Tom Doherty, a decorated Air Force pilot and aviation fanatic who grew up working at St. Paul’s Holman Field. The couple lived in St. Paul and their second home was the Lake Elmo airport, where Tom gave Kay and Danny piloting lessons.

The Dohertys in 1967 purchased what was then known as Journey’s End Airport in Forest Lake. The family transformed it from a place to land and take off to a full enterprise offering plane service and minor repair, storage, fuel service and a flight school. It was licensed commercial in 1969 and, at Danny’s suggestion, the name was changed to the Forest Lake Airport to be straight-forward.

With Tom Doherty also serving in the Minnesota National Guard until 1977 and Danny in charge of the flight school, Kay Doherty took on much of the day-to-day work. She washed and fueled planes, served as bookkeeper and cared for the grounds, but was best known for her interactions with the pilots as the airport’s line girl.

A former bartender, she was the sharp, strong type who was more than capable of keeping up with the men’s antics.

The airport developed a reputation for having one of the best grass runways in the state and Kay Doherty was very protective of it. Rather than sell pilots gas in conditions that would harm the runway, she chased the pilots away.

“She was very, very quick-witted,” said Rick Ashbach, a local pilot who worked under the Dohertys starting at the age of 12. “All of them attracted customers to Forest Lake, but Kay, really. She was just really fun to come visit and would give you hell and keep you on your toes.”

The line office Kay Doherty stationed at the Forest Lake Airport. (Photo submitted)

The line office Kay Doherty stationed at the Forest Lake Airport. (Photo submitted)

Yet Kay Doherty was generous with the pilots, too, as coffee and pizza slices were always on hand.

“Kay was magnetic, with most of those stopping by being attracted back time and time again,” Ashbach said. “She had a heart of gold. It may have taken time for some to find, but it was always there.”

Her caring nature was also manifested in her love for animals. Legend had it, Ashbach said, that the Doherty house was the town’s first animal shelter. Kay Doherty would take in stray cats and also tend to the pets of the airport’s customers.

Tragedy struck in 1976, as Danny and two others perished in a two-plane collision over the airport. Kay and Tom Doherty worked on through their grieving.

“It was tough for them to lose their son, and he was such an integral part of the airport, but there was never a doubt it would remain open,” Ashbach said.

Fueling FL’s Growth

In their 70s in 1998, the Dohertys sold the airport to Forest Lake Township as part of a 630-acre transaction. Their asking price was $1.8 million, several million less than market value. Their main concern was honoring their son and the airport’s history by keeping its purpose intact.

“Kay said she did not want to see houses built over all of the airport,” said Ashbach, who was on the Town Board at the time. “Her and Tom, they believed so strongly in aviation that they wanted to see the airport stay. They also wanted to see other recreational opportunities in Forest Lake and not just houses scattered all over.”

Kay (second from left) and Tom with relatives and their Meyers biplane. (Photo submitted)

Kay (second from left) and Tom with relatives and their Meyers biplane. (Photo submitted)

Several hundred acres surrounding the airport were sold with the idea of providing space for public ventures. Today that land is home to the Forest Lake Area Athletic Association Sports Center, Fenway Athletic Park, Hardwood Creek Library and the Washington County Government Center.

Doherty remained a fixture at the airport after the sale. For years she continued to take calls on airport business, and she and Tom Doherty enjoyed rides in their 1936 Meyers open-cockpit biplane. The airfield was dedicated in Danny’s honor in 2001. Even after Tom Doherty passed away in 2007, Kay Doherty would come out to the airport’s annual open houses.

“She still knew what was going on at that airport, and she sometimes did before anyone else,” Ashbach said.

Editor’s note: See a full obituary online.

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