Aviation Scholarship: A Testament to Never Giving Up

April 11, 2024

Sherry Beames, Office ManagerBy Sherry Beames, Office Manager

Bernard Kriesel's love for aviation is shown here as he poses next to an airplane he built and flew.Bernard Kriesel flies high

“Never give up!” would be a perfect motto for Bernard Kriesel. It was a saying he exemplified throughout his life. Born on the Fourth of July in 1925, Bernard was the middle of nine siblings. He was patriotic and family-oriented. A man of few words, Bernard lived a simple but bountiful life filled with generously helping those around him, a passion for self-education, practical and purposeful engineering, and a love of flying.

Despite suffering from severe alopecia starting at age seven and resulting in complete hair loss, Bernard kept his chin up. He watched longingly as a young child while small aircraft took off and landed on the grass runway on Brice Prairie near Oak Grove Elementary, where he attended school. The budding dream of becoming a pilot beginning to blossom.

Aviation dream takes flight

His family relocated to a farm outside of Trempealeau during his sophomore year. Due to his alopecia, he could not join the armed forces during World War II like many of his brothers. Instead, after graduation, he helped the war efforts by building aircraft at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California, for 75¢ an hour. After a year and a pay raise to 80¢ an hour, Bernard came home to help the family on the farm after one of his brothers suffered a sports injury. The dream of flying persisted, and Bernard began local flight training when he could afford it and received his private pilot license at 19. It cost him $300, an amount equivalent to over $5,000 today.

Bernard stayed in the La Crosse area and worked many years at Mathy Construction, hauling equipment in the summer. During the winter seasons, he worked for a company hauling citrus products from Texas to the Midwest.

Finding love with Linda

He found love through a German pen pal and married Hildegard “Linda” Kuhrt in 1961. Bernard took both a welding and blueprint reading course from Western Technical College in 1964; these courses served him well throughout the many projects he implemented over the years. Among these was designing and building a home for him and Linda, including a basement swimming pool for Linda that was heated with solar panels. And later, he converted his Volkswagen truck to run on recycled soybean oil repurposed from restaurant fryers.

The couple helped Bernard’s parents with a strawberry farm business, which they eventually took over after Bernard retired from Mathy in 1983. The Berry Patch was a wonderful, flourishing, pick-your-own strawberry business, and Bernard added various other fruit trees and raspberries.

Building his own airplane

At 65 years of age, still fascinated by aviation, Bernard bought his first airplane kit and began construction, using his basement to assemble smaller parts and his workshop shed for larger ones. Before he could finish the plane, a chimney fire in the shed destroyed most of the airplane, and Bernard received severe burns attempting to save any parts he could. The recovery process was slow and left many scars. The only salvageable items were the airplane’s wings, which had been stored in another shed. Bernard wasn’t done. He ordered another airplane kit, which was smaller, so he could build faster. It took him one and a half years to complete, but Bernard built his own Challenger plane. He successfully flew this plane over the next ten years, logging in over a thousand hours of flight time.

Never a quitter

After 40 years of marriage, Bernard’s bride, Linda, passed away. They never had children of their own but made all their nieces and nephews feel special and loved. Bernard continued to be enthusiastic and motivated about life (and aviation!). He met with family annually around his Fourth of July birthday, and he was a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) for over 60 years. He sold the Challenger in the mid-2000s and purchased another kit, the Zenith 701, the same plane he had lost in the fire. Bernard worked hard and eventually completed building the plane, an admirable feat! He never had the opportunity to fly it, but it was a satisfying accomplishment. He sold the Zenith in 2022 to a man nearly 60 years his junior, knowing that the love of flying would continue through his self-built plane.

Love of aviation fuels a legacy

At 97 years old, right before his passing, Bernard still had a list of projects he wanted to accomplish in his life. Bernard is a testimony to living your best life, being grateful for what you have and passing it on to others. He would advise to “make your life worthwhile” and is helping to do that for others by establishing the Bernard Kriesel Aviation Scholarship Fund at La Crosse Community Foundation. This fund supports the development of youth in aviation in the greater La Crosse area by promoting the love of flying and creating bridges to in-demand pilot careers.

Bernard’s persistence, ongoing interest in learning, and staying present and optimistic despite what life throws your way are inspirational. Bernard’s motto, “Never give up!” speaks volumes of the person he was and what his legacy will continue.