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Reunion Day in Newton is a day to salute soldiers and a day of festivities. Many families travel from afar to come “home” and spend Reunion week in the county they grew up in. In addition to the traditional August get-togethers in Newton, there was another special reunion — a reunion of the highest altitude.
Sherrills Ford native and World War II veteran Harold “Zeke” Saunders, returned to the county as Reunion Parade grand marshal. Saunders, 91, first attended Soldiers Reunion Day when he was about 7 years old.
But Saunders was part of another reunion, as well. The airline he once helped lift off also received a special spotlight.
As a career pilot, Saunders served as a top executive and chief pilot for Piedmont Airlines.
On Reunion Day, Saunders and other veterans from the North Carolina-based airline held a reunion at the Old Post Office Playhouse to celebrate the production “Speedbird,” a documentary film created by Catawba Valley Community College’s history department.
The documentary chronicles the history of Piedmont from its founding in 1948 up through its merger with USAir in 1989.
Saunders, CVCC administration, faculty and Foundation members were there, as well as a large contingent of the Piedmont “family” — former executives, pilots, flight attendants and crew members.
Also honored were CVCC students who helped produce the documentary as part of CVCC History Instructor Richard Eller’s Hands-on History project.
The documentary comes four years after Eller’s book about the airline “Piedmont Airlines: A Complete History 1948-1989” was published.
Eller, 52, has somewhat of a history with Piedmont Airlines. Born in Lenoir, he grew up in Winston-Salem — Piedmont’s base of operations.
“When I was a kid, we drove by the airport every day,” Eller said. “One of the(Piedmont) hangars was across the runway. I watched for the planes to take off.”
Eller, with a background in video, said CVCC President Dr. Garret Hinshaw agreed to buy new video equipment but only after asking Eller a question.
“He asked ‘Can you get us on UNC-TV if we buy this?’ I said, ‘Yes, indeed,’” Eller said.
“It worked out,” Eller said.
Indeed, it did. UNC-TV aired “Speedbird,” the first documentary film produced by the history class.
The making of the DVD “Speedbird” was a class project in documentary-filming as part of Eller’s Hands-on History classes.
Eller believes giving his students “hands-on” experience with history increases their comprehensive understanding of the past.
“They actually experience a piece of history,” Eller said.
Taking history courses in school is important for a number of reasons, Eller said.
“It’s good to know all the mistakes people make so they don’t do it again,” he said with a grin, adding that “history is the world’s largest soap opera” because people do all sorts of things throughout history that are, well, “interesting.”
Three of Eller’s students who worked on “Speedbird” attended the “reunion” on Reunion Day — Mandy Jolly, Alex Schilz and Christopher Reidel — were all history majors at CVCC, graduated and received degrees from Lenoir Rhyne University.
Schilz said they all had classes with Eller previously.
“I was in his documentary class, and he asked if we were interested in ‘Speedbird,’ which was the foundation of that class,” Schilz said. “As part of the class, we made the documentary. As he (Eller) created ‘Speedbird,’ he showed us, and we took that knowledge and made our own documentary,” he said.
Jolly said Eller had the class read parts of his book.
“Before we helped with the documentary, we read, and that helped us,” she said.
History came alive through Eller to the students, the three said.
“It’s always a pleasure working with Mr. Eller,” Reidel said.
Their class helped lay the foundation for the documentary.
“Today is our premiere, too,” Jolly said. “We’ve just seen bits and pieces of that which we helped to create almost four years ago.”
Eller, who said he doesn’t emphasize dates in history classes but instead emphasizes people because they make history, holds the students in the DVD class project in his memories.
“That was a special group and a good time to be here,” he said.
Eller said he made good friends while working on the book.
“I heard so many stories along the way,” he said, “stories you can’t put in a book.”
But, that’s what history is, isn’t it — all about people?
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Richard Eller was born in Lenoir, in 1960, but spend the formative years of his childhood in Winston-Salem. During high school he embarked upon a career in radio and after graduation from South Caldwell High School in 1978, he attended broadcasting school in Charlotte.
As a broadcaster, Eller worked in various capacities including news gathering, announcing and commercial production at radio stations in Charlotte, Hickory, Lenoir, Newton, Forest City and Chester, S.C. In 1982, Eller earned an associate degree at Caldwell Community College. He enrolled at Lenoir-Rhyne College, double-majored in Theatre and Communication and earned a Bachelor Degree in 1986.
Eller joined the staff of Catawba Valley Cable TV in 1987 as Production Manager, a position he held for 15 years. During that time he managed all commercial production as well as a daily news show that during his tenure expanded into three additional counties.
He also created a historical documentary series called “Back Then…” that won the North Carolina Cable Telecommunications “Partner’s Award” for outstanding collaboration with community organizations. The series consisted of 17 documentaries, three of which were aired on the History Channel during its seven year run form 1995-2002. While still production manager, Eller returned to the classroom to seek an advanced degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In 1999 he received a Master of Arts degree. His thesis investigated the origins of the furniture industry in western North Carolina.
Eller began teaching on an adjunct basis for both Caldwell Community College and Catawba Valley Community College upon completion of his Master’s Degree. In 2002 he was offered and accepted a full time position as a history instructor at CVCC. Twice nominated for the “Excellence in Teaching” award, Eller became department head of Social Science in 2008, where he serves still. As a professor of history, he began a program at CVCC called “HandsOnHistory,” which helps students to study historical events from a perspective other than the classroom. Efforts include historical travel to sites in both the United States and Europe.
Another aspect of the program was the creation of a course for student documentary production, allowing students to conceive and produce their own historical work.
In 2003, he collaborated on a book with friend and colleague Jerry Goodnight concerning the possible North Carolina origins of Abraham Lincoln. “The Tarheel Lincoln” and its findings were reported by news organizations across the nation including the Chicago Tribune, WBT in Charlotte, WGHP in High Point, NC and CNN. Following the success of “The Tarheel Lincoln,” Eller began research on a volume about famed North Carolina air carrier, Piedmont Airlines.
“Piedmont Airlines: A Complete History, 1948-1989” tells the story of the rise and fall of an airline that came to be the sixth largest carrier in the nation before its takeover by USAir. The book was published in 2008 and the following year received the Willie Parker Peace Prize of the North Carolina Society of Historians. In addition, Eller produced a documentary on Piedmont Airlines entitled “Speedbird: The History of Piedmont Airlines” that was aired on the UNC-TV network. Recently, the book and documentary were featured as the topic of discussion during an episode of the talk show, “Charlotte Talks” on WFAE in Charlotte. Both were also presented as part of the 2012 Catawba County Soldier’s Reunion activities in Newton.