Playwright Lorraine Hansberry asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” For Ken Jillson, the dream returned so much bigger that he had to share it. Applying both imagination and discipline, he spent a career chasing dreams and catching them. Now that he has rediscovered his passion for flying, he will help others do the same.
“I marvel at how fortunate I’ve been to have magical visions and make them come to life. It’s amazing,” says the recreational pilot who will put aviation careers in reach for Embry-Riddle students in need through the Ken Jillson & Al Roberts Happy Trails Aviation Scholarship Endowment.
The “full ride” for a Prescott Campus student is available for up to five years and covers tuition and fees, books, on-campus housing, meal plan (or equivalent off-campus) and flight training fees.
In a career that spans public relations, marketing, fundraising, Broadway productions, and a love of aviation that reignited after a long gap, Jillson doesn’t just believe in magic. He makes you believe, too.
Trips to the Los Angeles International Airport with his father sparked his fascination with airplanes, but Jillson never wanted to be a pilot. He was attending Cal State, Long Beach, when his father’s death forced him to work as a bank teller to help his family and get through school. He grew curious about a woman who appeared every Friday to deposit a fistful of checks. She told him the money was coming in to a flight school and invited him to try a discovery flight.
They put him in a Cessna, and he was hooked. He had to learn to fly. “To this day, I haven’t a clue how I got the money together for lessons. I was scraping through, putting myself through college.”
He soloed after 12 hours – not quite unshakably confident. “The airport at Hawthorne is parallel to LAX. I’d look out my window and see Douglas DC-8s and Boeing 707s landing, and I’d think: ‘Whoa, I’m in this dinky little Cessna 150.’ But I kept at it.”
After about 30 hours, a mistake followed by a dressing down from the tower rattled him. “I turned crosswind too quickly. When you take off, you have to make a left turn and I turned too soon. I had to report to the tower for a lecture. The whole thing freaked me out.”
He made the last entry in his logbook that day in 1967, too shaken to take to the air again.
Or so he thought.
Re: United, and It Feels So Good
Aviation would return to Jillson in a big way in 2017. When Harrison Ford was involved in a mishap at John Wayne Airport, Jillson was dazzled by the star power — not of Ford — but of his Aviat Husky. “It’s a hot rod. It has big, fat tires, a tailwheel and a stick. It looks very old school – very Indiana Jones, but it has all the latest glass cockpit avionics.”
He fell back in love with the idea of flight.
“I was around 70 when I started thinking about picking up flying again. I had the resources and the time to study hard. I thought, come hell or high water, I’m going to finish my training and I’m going to have an Aviat Husky.”
Jillson studied two hours a day and flew twice a week at the Chino Airport, earning his private pilot license in 2018. He soon moved from rentals to his own Bonanza G36. Favorite trips include Catalina and Sedona, Arizona, which put Prescott – and Embry-Riddle – more prominently on his radar.
This year, the airplane market allowed him to sell his Bonanza at a profit. It was time to trade up to his dream plane. He will take delivery of his hand-built beauty in September and train for a week at the Aviat Husky facility.
Both of his planes have an Embry-Riddle connection. He sold his Bonanza to Cort Haynes (’00), and his test pilot at Aviat is Bobby Drouin (’20).
One of his delights is his Aviat’s tail number – 828HT. The first digits stand for his August 28 birthday. The HT stands for Happy Trails. The reference is a private salute to his life partner, Al, who would play the Roy Rogers song to signal an end to their dinner parties. Jillson and Roberts enjoyed a personal and professional partnership – including running a business and co-founding a non-profit foundation – that lasted 50 years, ending with Roberts’ death in 2021.
Another red-letter day for him in September is a planned visit to Embry-Riddle in Prescott. “I have lived in a small town, Laguna Beach, California, for 50 years. I love the idea of making a difference in a small community.”
A Heart to Help, a Head for Business
Jillson is exuberant but not impulsive. His executor, who also functions as a business adviser, helped him examine how Embry-Riddle manages endowments. He liked the stewardship he saw, with the use of 5 percent of the donation so the bulk of the gift continues to grow through investment. He called the school and began planning his estate gift with Travis Grantham, Executive Director of Gift Planning & Special Gifts.
His friends in the arts heightened his awareness of the value of endowments. “Gifts that reach into the future help sustain good work. When people from the U.S. are planning their trusts, they should realize how a trust makes a big difference, whether a million dollars or multimillions. You have to plan – plan ahead so you have some control before you take your final flight.”
“This all makes me very happy. I saw a press release about a big gift from Boeing in 2019, and I thought, mine’s going to be better!”
True to his natural enthusiasm, he is already an ambassador. “I’ve told people what I’m doing with the Harvard of Aviation and I tell them, ‘Look it up and you’ll see why.’ I’ve been blessed with resources, and I like the idea of helping a student with good grades and financial need on the career path to becoming a pilot. It would be very near and dear to my heart if the student could be from Laguna Beach.”
Another aspect of his affinity for aviation students is that he remains one himself. “I’m working on my instrument rating. It is hard to memorize all this stuff. But my pilot friends tell me it is the one rating you will cherish because it really means you are a better pilot. My goal is to earn that rating before the end of the year. Working on it!”
The artistic focus of his career may seem a departure from aviation, but to Jillson, the connection is imagination (with the hard work to back it up.) “Things I’ve done don’t seem to have anything to do with aviation, but it all weaves a background of magic. If you dream it, you can make it happen. That is the gift that I’m really sharing. If you think you can fly, if you want to become an airline pilot or corporate pilot, you can do it. That Happy Trails Scholarship is the magic that will open doors that may appear shut.”