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A Tribute to Billy Gene "Mr. Bill" White

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lowga

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For many Born Again Rocketeers, our love affair with model rocketry began in hobby shops in the 1960's and 70's.

In Cleveland, TN that place was "The Hobby Mart" and it was located inside a brand new icon of mid-century architecture, "The Village Shopping Center." A forerunner of the giant malls to come, it was a roofed (but open air) shopping center. Anchored by large stores on both ends, and filled with smaller shops inside. For a child of the 1960's, it was the closest thing to Disneyland you can imagine.

It had an underground bowling alley, "The Village Lanes" that doubled as a fallout shelter. There I was introduced to the wonders of pinball, great snack food, and eventually a modern wonder called "Pong."

The perimeter of the mall had a movie theatre complete with Saturday matinees and the nicest manager you can imagine. Patient with children, always there with a smile.

The Village contained other wonders...a great record store filled with music and teenagers who seemed annoyed when I visited. And an even stranger shop that sold blacklight posters, lava lamps, and other icons of the counter-culture. On the 4th of July, there were huge fireworks displays in the parking lot. At Christmas time, Santa Claus had a small house inside the mall where you could wait in line to sit on his lap, and tell him your wishes. A small mailbox outside of Santa's House was a depository for the complete wish list. These would be read by Santa on our local radio station, WBAC 1340 AM a few nights later, complete with sound effects from Santa's North Pole HQ.

The Village Bake Shop contained every wonder of sweet treat you could imagine--including creme horns, gingerbread cookies, and tea cookies. That shop is still there, and still delicious all these many years later.

But the spot of most wonder and joy for a boy of the 60's was called "The Hobby Mart." Filled with photography equipment of all kinds. Cameras, enlargers, darkroom equipment even Super 8mm film cameras. They also stocked toys and kits that couldn't fail to catch the eye. A Viewmaster display that seemed ten feet tall. All these amazing Revell models, radio controlled aircraft and boats, paints & supplies.

Right in the center of the shop were two well stocked areas. One side held rocket kits from Estes, and the other--much, much cooler side held kits from Centuri Engineering. For me it was mecca...and every spare dime I could earn or beg from my parents was spent there.

The ringmasters in this circus were a kindly couple "Billy and Bernie (Bernice) White." To me he was "Mr. White," though he would later become even more widely known as Mr. Bill. I suspect this had something to do with Saturday Night Live.

On countless Saturday afternoon, he would explain the wonders of things like how to develop 35mm film (including many trips to the darkroom located in the shop), aerodynamics, the proper way to cut balsa wood, and the mysteries of radio control. He seemed to know everything about everything.

I remember that he once built a fully-functional wind tunnel in the rear of the shop and allowed customers to use it to test their airplane and rocket models. It was fascinating to watch the white smoke flow around my models through a small plexiglass window. I learned (visually) how improvements in my sanding and painting techniques could make air flow better over my fins. It also made the rockets go higher.

Without "Mr. White" and his kind wife too, my life would have been much poorer. He passed away a few years back, but I hope that they both know how much they meant to a generation of children. The influence that they had and the joy that they brought into our lives.

The Hobby Mart is long gone, and sadly places like it. But their legacy is secure. Here's a salute to Bill and Bernie....and to all the "Mr. White's" out there who nurtured the dreams of children. Dreams of flying into space, and reaching for the stars.

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Glasspack

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Thank you for sharing that.............

Growing up In Racine WI. The name of our place was GARYS Hobby. I don't know the name of the old man, but he was running that place
into his late 80s early 90s I think !! He was also a great man. Miss that store.........
 

MALBAR 70

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Yes , thanks for that. I miss good old fashioned Mom and Pop hobby shops. Always a place of wonder, no matter your age.
For us it was McMannus Hobby and Novelty. Ernie was the man, he usually had a freebee to stick in your bag too.
 

Antares JS

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When I was little, I got my stuff from Michael's, but it doesn't seem that they carry much in the way of rockets anymore. When I was living in Fond du Lac, WI, there was a nice shop called Focus. No idea if Focus is still there but the owner kept me supplied with rocket stuff all through high school and he even had a few Aerotech items. He sold me my first composite F motor.
 

lowga

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In our town, you were either "Team Estes" or "Team Centuri." Mr. White wisely sold to both factions, and tried not to take sides. I can remember many large displays from both companies, posters, T-shirts, etc. He would alternate the displays and was quick to try to point out the virtues of the other companies products.

I was "Team Centuri" all the way.

Hard to explain if you didn't live through it. But this same generation of kids would heated arguments over monumental issues like "Who would win in a fight between Dracula and Frankenstein?"

Small town America, circa 1969 was pretty damn cool. Bernie and Bill, you're really missed.
 

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