GREENFIELD — She waved him down with a smile, stretched out one hand and with the other clutched a pair of picture-covered poster boards as they flapped slightly in the breeze.
Michelle McQueen told Carl Culmann she doesn’t often have a chance to say thank you to the men who helped save her son’s life, as so many of those helpful souls are known only by their titles as Shriners.
But this weekend, McQueen was surrounded by them, and she wanted to show her appreciation. She and her young son, Ian, were among the hundreds who came to Hancock County’s Indianapolis Regional Airport on Saturday and Sunday to participate in the inaugural Indy Air Expo.
Story continues below gallery
The event was organized by the Murat Shriners, an Indianapolis-based regional chapter of the charitable fraternity Shriners International; the two-day aviation event served as a fundraisers for Shriners Hospitals for Children.
Spotting the maroon, jeweled Shriners fez hat atop Culmann’s head, McQueen rushed forward to shake his hand.
She told him how Ian, now 6, was born with a cleft lip and underwent surgery in the first weeks of his life to repair the malformation at the Shriners’ Chicago hospital; she showed Culmann pictures of Ian as a baby and snapshots of him now, a bright-eyed little boy with just a scar under his nose, happy and healthy, who loves baseball and has many friends.
Culmann, the potentate, or president, of the Murat Shriners and a chief organizer of the Indy Air Expo, listened to the woman’s story with a broad grin. As he watched her walk away a few minutes later, he lifted his glasses and brushed away tears.
The exchange was a lovely reminder, he said, of the great work done each day at the Shriners’ 22 nonprofit children’s hospitals across the United States. It brought him joy to think of the hundreds of other families the organization will be able to help thanks to funds raised at the Indy Air Expo.
The expo is the second aviation event to come to the Indianapolis Regional Airport this year with the hope of replacing the now defunct Indianapolis Air Show, which for more than a decade drew roughly 100,000 people to Hancock County annually.
In June, the Warbird Expo, an event organized by the Indiana Commemorative Air Force, a branch of a national nonprofit that honors veterans and maintains aircraft, moved its annual airshow from Fishers to the airport along Mount Comfort Road.
Organizers of the Warbird Expo were hoping to fill a void for aviation enthusiasts that was left when the Indianapolis Air Show canceled its event indefinitely in 2013.
And Shriners chapters from across the region stepped in to take advantage of the fundraising opportunity a two-day air show presented, organizers said. The long-running Indy Air Show benefited various charitable organizations, typically Riley Hospital for Children, in its 16 years; the Murat Shriners stepped in, rebranded the event the Indy Air Expo, and organized it as a fundraiser to benefit the dozens Shriners Hospitals for Children across the nation.
The expo offered many of the same attractions as the old air show, including flights by stunt pilots and tours of old warplanes.
Organizers are still figuring the total brought in, and Culmann admits he wasn’t sure what to expect from the first-time event. Each adult to walk through the front gate paid $20 for a general admission ticket or $50 for a VIP pass. Indy Jet, a Greenfield-based aviation company that helped sponsor the event, offered plane rides for about $100, profits from which were donated to Shriners. A handful of former Shriners patients came to the event to talk with attendees about their experience in the hopes of drumming up more donations.
But the expo’s first year came with a bit of disappointment, organizers said. Rainy weather forced the group to cancel many of its Saturday attractions. Culmann hopes the Indy Air Expo would grow in the coming years to be as popular as its air show predecessor, which in its heyday drummed up a $250,000 in one weekend for Riley Hospital, he said.
The hospital’s doctors serve pediatric patients with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip and palate disorders. Each child is admitted to the hospital regardless of the parent’s ability to pay, Culmann said. The hospitals’ $900 million operating costs are primarily funded by donations, as they help 300,000 children at any given time.
The inaugural Indy Air Expo benefited Shriners Hospitals. If you missed the show but still want to contribute, visit shrinershospitalsforchildren.org.