Stuart Powell, a pillar of Boyle County and the namesake of the county airfield, died early Saturday morning at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center. He was 89.
“He died from pneumonia and complications from that, along with a fractured hip is how it started,” said an employee at Powell’s car dealership, who wished to remain anonymous but had been given permission to speak about his boss’ death.
Funeral arrangements are pending for Powell at Preston-Pruitt Funeral Home in Danville. The employee said he expects a visitation to be held on Tuesday and a funeral on Wednesday.
Powell had spent two weeks in the hospital after falling and breaking his hip, the employee said. While hospitalized, he caught pneumonia and “it kind of transformed,” he said.
The mood at the Stuart Powell dealership Saturday was “business as usual, but it’s definitely a different atmosphere,” the employee said.
“He would want you to keep going and sell cars. That’s who he was,” he said. “… He wouldn’t want a huge celebration, I feel like.”
Besides spending nearly 68 years in the car business, Powell was passionate about aviation and worked tirelessly to build the Danville-Boyle County Airport — and its airfield, which is named after him.
“He helped make everything happen,” said Rob Caldwell, an Airport Board member. “… He was very active in the management of the airport until the moment he fell. After that, he was still active in the hospital. I have no doubt that some of his last thoughts were about the airport, because it was part of his family.”
Caldwell has known Powell all his life, and Powell helped inspire him to pursue aviation at a young age, he said.
“My first ride in an airplane other than my father’s was when he took me up to take pictures of our farm,” he said. “I was just one of many people he would take up for rides to share the joys of aviation with.”
Powell had a vision for what the Danville-Boyle County Airport could be long before it achieved its current status as a highly regarded regional airport with a 5,000-foot runway and a waiting list of airplanes wanting hangars, Caldwell said.
“He could see when there was an opportunity to take a young growing airfield and turn it into what it is today,” he said “It is a tremendous infrastructure that is one of the best in the state.”
Caldwell said Powell worked “foot by foot” to reach the “magic number” of 5,000 feet for the airfield’s main runway, allowing it to attract corporate traffic. Once that was complete, Powell began building up infrastructure around the runways. He secured funding for the airport’s administration building 10 years ago, and he almost lived to see it paid off.
“The final payment is being made this week,” Caldwell said. “It was always important to him that every penny the airport received was spent responsibly and that every debt was paid promptly. And that has always taken place.”
Work will continue on improvements to the airport that Powell helped secure federal and state funding for, including a new corporate hangar capable of housing jets and a 10-unit T-hangar to help with the airport’s lengthy waiting list.
Caldwell said Powell knew he wouldn’t be around forever and worked to ensure the airport would continue its rise after he was gone.
“The whole time I’ve been on the board, he’s been working very hard to enable the rest of the board to accept a day like today and maintain that momentum — and he’s done a tremendous job of that,” Caldwell said. “He’s been very organized; he’s made sure all the board members know (everyone) at the state and federal level and the local level. He’s got some big shoes to fill and he’s made sure they can be filled.”
Something Powell was very happy to accomplish at the airport was bringing back a Civil Air Patrol chapter.
“When he started flying, he was an active cadet with the Civil Air Patrol,” Caldwell said. “… When Civil Air Patrol came back to the airfield several years ago, that was one of probably the happiest moments he had enjoyed … he had worked for years to make that happen. For him to be able to see that not only launch but succeed in a great way was very fulfilling to him.”
Steve Parker, commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Aviation, said Powell was “an incredibly strong man.”
“He was a mentor to me,” Parker said. “… He was a good Christian man. He just wanted to help people.”
Parker had plans to attend Saturday’s UK football game, but had to leave at halftime because he couldn’t stop thinking about the loss of Powell. He came home to find his phone flooded with missed calls and texts from people who had heard the news.
“I loved him like a father; I only knew him 20 years,” Parker said. “… Not many men have I ever known in my life who were as good to other people, as genuine as Stuart Powell. I will never forget the example he set for me.”
Powell was always encouraging others and setting an example; you would never find him sitting in his office. Powell fell and broke his hip while he was working at his dealership, cleaning up oil on the floor, said Parker, who visited Powell once while he was in the hospital.
Powell didn’t know it, but he was going to be given the prestigious Henry O. Award for “overall excellence in aviation over a long period of time” at an upcoming statewide aviation conference in Lexington, Parker said.
“Everybody in aviation in the state of Kentucky — and outside of Kentucky — respected Stuart Powell” for how he ran the Danville-Boyle County Airport, he said. “He would go to the airport every day just to motivate people. Who does that for a non-paying job? Who does that? Well, Stuart Powell did.”
Parker said Powell served as chairman of the airport board for 47 years; he was a strong supporter of many community organizations and events in Boyle County, including the Norton Center; he cared for his family; he cared for his employees; he gave selflessly to all of the things he cared about.
“What’s he going to be remembered for? All of those things, but mostly for his genuine loving of people,” Parker said.
Danville Mayor Mike Perros said Powell’s economic impact on the area is “probably larger than most people realize” because of how valuable the airport will be to future development.
Perros said Powell will be “forever remembered for his 40 years of dedicated work” to the airport.
“There wasn’t anybody in aviation that Stuart didn’t know, and maybe very few in aviation that didn’t know him,” Perros said. “Stuart could get things out of our state and federal government that just made people shake their heads.”
Perros said he and Powell shared a passion for music — both men love playing the drums.
“Back in his day, Stuart was a drummer in a number of jazz big bands,” he said. “… If you put a set of drums in front of him now, if he were still with us, he could still play — no doubt.”
Powell was proud of how successful his car dealership became over the years, Perros said.
“When he started in business, there was usually a Ford dealership in every county,” he said. “And as business became more competitive, Stuart essentially became the last man standing as he serviced nine counties.”
Powell opened his first used car lot in Perryville in 1949, according to a history shared on his dealership’s website.
“His father had been a Chevrolet dealer in the same town who, unfortunately, got out of the car business in 1945 due to health problems,” according to the history. “But the car business was in Stuart’s blood.”
Powell went on to work at Mattingly and Rapier’s Chevrolet in Danville, and wound up running a location in Garrard County for the company.
Powell started his own dealership in Lancaster in 1960, then moved to Danville under pressure from Ford to relocate to a larger market, according to the history.
“Permanent changes came when the Stuart Powell Ford dealership moved to its current home on the South Danville Bypass in 1982,” the history reads. “He built a brand new building, and in 2002 added 12,000 square feet to allow room to bring in the Mazda dealership formerly located on Hustonville Road.”
“Stuart didn’t slow down for anything,” Perros said. “Had it not been for his fall, he would still be actively involved in his business and his family — which, by the way, includes his employees. He treated them like family.”
Perros said he doesn’t know of another 89-year-old who is as “mentally sharp and physically active” as Powell was.
“Stuart dealt with life with grace. He celebrated the good things gracefully and he dealt with adversity gracefully,” he said. “… Stuart was a father figure to some; he was a mentor to many; and an inspiration to all of us.”
This story was updated with additional info at 3 p.m. Sept. 9.