LYNDON — Vinny Matteis grew up just a few minutes away from Idlewild, the airport that is today John F. Kennedy International Airport in his hometown, New York City.
The airport was re-named for the fallen president just six weeks after his assassination.
As a boy, Matteis, a longtime Lyndon resident, would pedal his bike down to the airport, where he would take in the takeoffs and landings of planes. He watched the travelers and airport staff, intrigued.
“I saw planes from the time I was first born,” he said.
Later, he moved to Vermont to attend St. Michael’s College in Winooski. Matteis, now 74, was in the ROTC and his interest in flying was still very much alive.
“I did have an interest in becoming a pilot,” he said.
After college, Matteis joined the United States Air Force, and did two tours in Vietnam.
A lifelong love of flying led him later in life to become active in the Caledonia County Airport, and he’s a founding member and current President of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 1576 based at the local airport, as well as a longtime member of the Vermont Pilots Association and a member of the Vermont Aviation Advisory Committee.
Matteis has been active with the EAA chapter in helping to introduce young people to the skies. The club offers free flights courtesy of local small plane owners every year to local children.
The love of aviation - coupled with a passion to do more and to preserve local aviation history, led Matteis to rent the long-vacant Pudding Hill Schoolhouse, on the grounds of the state-run airport. A tiny handmade sign on the door modestly announces what’s to come: the Vermont Aviation Museum and Flying School.
Matteis said it took a few months and then a lot of clearing out junk, but he recently signed a lease with the Vermont Agency of Transportation for a 25-year lease on the old schoolhouse.
“I’ll be dead by then,” laughs Matteis, but he’s hopeful the venture will continue long after he’s gone.
Matteis said the schoolhouse was originally a Baptist church (in the 1820s) and served as the Pudding Hill Schoolhouse to educate Lyndonville children from 1829-1965.
Four years after the school was shuttered for children, it was moved, in 1969, to the airport property, and bought by the State of Vermont for the sum of $4,500, according to Matteis. The State turned it into the first Terminal building for the new Caledonia County Airport in 1974.
“It served that purpose until the new hangar and Terminal were installed,” Matteis said. “It sat idle for several years, then served as the home of the Civil Air Patrol facility for about 8 years… It has been idle and left basically uncared for over the last 10-12 years.”
He said it’s fitting that the site be the home of the first-ever aviation museum in Vermont.
“On Sept. 15, 1910, at the Caledonia County Fair, then in St. Johnsbury, Charles Willard became the first to fly an airplane in the State of Vermont,” said Matteis. He has an old newspaper clipping that shows that 10,000 people turned out to watch the flight.
“It seemed appropriate that Vermont Aviation Museum should be established in the same county where Vermont Aviation began.”
He said, “It is my hope that we can collect historic aviation artifacts from the many State airports — even have fly-ins from those airports to bring items here. The Flying School side will be an educational resource for all ages and all interests.”
It’s not an official non-profit, but Matteis doesn’t expect to earn anything running the small venture. In fact, he is spending retirement money on it.
Matteis met his wife, Lorraine, on a blind date when she was in nursing school and he was an English literature major at St. Michael’s, and they made their life in her native hometown of Lyndonville.
In 1982, Matteis began AMVAL, a company whose acronym is made up of he and his wife’s first name initials, and those of their three children. The company was formed “to help promote and sell the value of American Manufacturers and the products they produced.”
Matteis is now retired, but grateful his children continue to run the business.
He said the life they built together and their work has done well by them, and he is excited to be taking on a significant retirement project that will give back to the community.
By the summer, Matteis hopes to open the doors for the small museum and flight school and host an open house, he said this week.
One of the people who have helped is his insurance agent for the venture, Paul Bellefeuille, of North Country Insurance in Lyndonville, who himself worked to restore the Northeastern Speedway in Waterford, so understood some of the challenges in what could, on paper, sound like a risky enterprise.
“I want to wish Vinny good luck with the restoration,” said Bellefeuille this week. “I know it will be a labor of love, and Vinny will do a good job with restoring the old schoolhouse.”
He said, “His work around the area is testament to his dedication to the community.”
“Vinny came to me to have his project properly insured as he knew about my restoration of Northeastern Speedway, which I have owned for 13 years and I am still working on the restoration process,” Bellefeuille continued. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but in the end, the rewards outweigh the challenges, because you are preserving history for the local community.”
Christopher Raymond oversees the small airport and said “There’s a lot to be thankful for with Mr. Matteis’s energy and vision, that he’s transforming an under-used resource, the schoolhouse at the airport into something we can all be proud of. I think Vermont is the last state or the only state that doesn’t have some sort of a museum to celebrate its aviation history.”
“His energy, his initiative, his intelligence all go towards a great vision that he has,” said Raymond.
A New Chapter For Pudding Hill School
“My mission is to promote aviation,” said Matteis.
He sees the building as being both a destination as a museum and for field trips from the local graded school, as well as to introduce students to STEM opportunities and careers related to the aviation industry, from pilots to mechanics to grounds crews.
Matteis envisions training for ground crews as well as hopefully having a local pilot offer instruction, pointing to one of the small side rooms (former bathrooms) that can be used by a pilot who offers instruction.
He said the opening of the museum in a few months’ time will make Vermont the final state in the Union to have its own aviation museum. He’s seeking donations including any historical aviation-related artifacts from across Vermont, and he’s hoping someone may have a bell to donate to the antique schoolhouse building.
Matteis is fixing up a small plane’s inner wooden arc to use as part of the signage, and it will be on a hinge that extends to “fly” and show that the flight school is open when the wing can be seen; he’s got it set up inside the old schoolhouse and a roll of sturdy aviation-grade fabric beside it, waiting for the project to come to fruition.
To find out more, or contact Matteis to donate historic aviation artifacts, or help out - he’s looking for volunteers, email him at email@example.com.