Epps' 38th Annual

Epps’ 38th Annual

"The 38th Annual..." It has a ring to it, doesn’t it? How long has it been — in this up-one-day, down-the-next world we live in — since you’ve been invited to a "38th Annual" anything? I got such an invitation recently, and therein lies a story.

Ralph HoodBy Ralph Hood

August 2001

Way back in 1907 a fellow named Ben Epps built and flew his own airplane. He did a few other things, too, and to this day the municipal airport in Athens, Georgia, is named Ben Epps field.
Ben Epps had a passel of kids —about nine, I think — and Lord knows the man must have a blue-jillion grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They seem to be everywhere. As best I can tell, all of Ben’s children have played a part in aviation. I’m pretty sure that all of the children were pilots, and I know a lot of the grandchildren are.
Members of the Epps clan have owned and operated FBOs, flown for the airlines, led expeditions to retrieve World War II airplanes from the Greenland ice cap, built airplanes, sold airplanes, and owned aircraft. I learned to fly at an Epps operation; I competed with another Epps operation for years; and I had two Epps brothers as customers in other years. I’ve even been sued with (not by, but with) one of them. Knowing them has been pleasant, enjoyable, and damned interesting.
When I was with Huntsville Aviation, the local newspaper once reported that the airport might oust us from the field in a dispute over lease negotiations. The next day, we were holding a little meeting in the office of Huntsville Aviation’s long-time manager, Bill Whatley.
Totally unannounced and without saying a word, George Epps — the Alabama Epps — walked into Bill’s office, whipped out a tape measure, and proceeded to measure Bill’s desk. He did it so busily that he took three different measurements before we got the joke.
Probably the biggest private Fourth of July party in North Alabama is the annual picnic at Sunset Farms, the palatial estate and airstrip of George and Dottie Epps. Every year, the Epps Clan gathers there with their many friends for good company and good barbecue. You meet everyone there from astronauts to student pilots, plus a large number of people who only dream of flying. There is a Cub that flies passengers, and always at least one antique airplane to ooh and ah over.
This year was different. Little more than a month prior to the Fourth, Dottie Epps died unexpectedly. Dottie was a charming, giving woman, much loved and admired by family and friends. Her death left a huge hole. We all knew there could be no picnic this year. We were all fooled.
Just a very few weeks after Dottie’s death, cometh in the mail our invitation to the 38th Annual Fourth of July Celebration Picnic. I was floored. In true Epps style, the family had decided that there could be no greater tribute to Dottie than to hold this and future picnics in memory of Dottie Epps. They did it with class.
There were about 500 people there, including aviation people I hadn’t seen in years. They stopped the flyovers briefly as everyone gathered for a short, dignified ceremony in Dottie’s memory, then the entire Epps clan joined in to serve barbecue.
I was proud to be there. In fact, I am proud just to know the Epps clan. They are a class act.