MACON - Doug and Betty Hempstead had lived in several places around the Midwest, North Carolina and Lake Gaston before arriving and falling in love with the Nocarva subdivision in Macon about two years ago. Aviation experts and enthusiasts, they lived right by the grass air strip that leads to the lake shore.
Initially, the Hempsteads had aimed for a house directly by the water, but they determined the home by Nocarva Airport on Cedarwood Street was close enough. The orange windsock in their front yard that Doug put up served as a helpful beacon for pilots, and is emblematic of their passion for flying.
“They were going to stay here forever,” said Doug and Betty’s daughter Cory Lawler.
“When they found Nocarva,” Cory’s husband Kyle Lawler said, “they found roots and then they dug them in deep.”
The Lawlers currently live in Oklahoma but also have strong ties to the Lake Gaston area - both are former Littleton Volunteer Fire Department members - and intended to be Doug and Betty’s neighbors one day, having purchased a nearby lot.
But the lives of Doug and Betty were taken in a car crash last week, not far from the neighborhood they grew to adore. They were both 70.
“Loss is terrible regardless, but it’s easier to accept when you’re expecting it,” Kyle said. “I can’t accept this one. I find myself trying to call (Doug) and ask him questions.”
Kyle thought of Doug and Betty much as his own parents, speaking to them by phone multiple times a week despite the distance in between them. Doug was Cory’s stepfather, but married Betty when Cory was 7, and raised her as his own.
And though they only called Nocarva home for a couple of years, Doug and Betty, who had been involved in aviation for more than 20 years and founded aircraft manufacturer LSA America in Littleton, made a significant impact on their community.
Doug and Betty found their way to Lake Gaston from Sanford, N.C., where they had established the B-Bar-D Aviation flight school. That’s where Kyle met them, before meeting Cory, following up on his lifelong dream to fly.
The Hempsteads specialized in the Allegro light sport aircraft, which had formerly been manufactured exclusively in Europe. That’s why they moved to the Lake Gaston area - to make the Allegro an American-made aircraft, selling everything they owned to buy the Czech company that had previously built the plane and had run into financial issues. It was an essential move to keep U.S. Allegro manufacturing and maintenance intact.
Doug helped write the standards for light sport aircraft in the U.S. under the Federal Aviation Administration. And Betty wrote the owner’s manual for the Allegro and ran the flight school, serving as president. Both were pilots.
“There’s no way that he could have done anything that he’s done without her,” Kyle said. “She’s just been his rock. From bookwork to paperwork to sales and service, she was right there in the middle of all of it.”
A plan to have an Allegro facility by the Halifax County airport was never able to materialize, thus making the Hempsteads’ operation, in the old factory building now occupied by Buddy Isles Tire and Automotive, more difficult. They had to truck in pieces of Allegros to have them serviced since the FAA wasn’t allowing the Allegros to fly in and out of the Halifax airport. It was costly and not really profitable enough to continue. But the Hemspteads did anyway, because the numerous flight schools that were using Allegros needed the support.
“So they made a very selfless decision to continue supporting the aircraft even though the company wasn’t making any money,” Kyle said. “They’d sunk every dime they had and continued to sink every dime that they had into a company that wasn’t making any money to prevent people from having to go through what they were having to go through.”
Doug and Betty always went all-in on their endeavors. Before aviation, it was horses. Doug and Betty, and Cory and her older brother David, all rode. Doug did not usually return from horse sales without at least one horse, often a neglected type the family would nurse back to health.
“Doug is just the nicest person you’ll meet,” Cory said. “He’ll talk to anybody.”
“Give you the shirt off his back in a heartbeat and a cold beer to go with it,” Kyle said before Cory added, “Mom is the same way.”
At home in Nocarva
Doug wanted to bring his neighbors together. Like many subdivisions around the lake, some Nocarva homes are empty for several months out of the year or property regularly changes hands. There hadn’t been social functions like the old days when the neighborhood hosted parties at its marina, which no longer exists.
So Doug, who became one of the two vice presidents of Nocarva Landowners, Inc, devised Beer on the Pier, a bimonthly get-together that became a big hit.
“He very much wanted to be a part of the community and get more people involved in things,” said Nocarva Landowners President David Worley. “He was very outgoing. Would help you at a moment’s notice. He’s going to be hard to replace.”
“Betty had just started recovering from an illness and was doing real well,” Worley added. “Both of them will be really missed.”
Jim DiBenedetto is one of the part-timers, who plans to eventually move to Nocarva permanently. His home is just down the hill from the Hempsteads’ and happens to be one of several guys named “Jim” in the neighborhood.
“Doug was a very generous neighbor and very well-liked in the neighborhood,” Jim said. “He wanted to promote togetherness here and unity and fellowship around Nocarva itself.”
Doug, also an avid fisherman and member of the Lake Gaston Striper Club, did that by helping save the airport, which would have had its flights grounded had he not stepped up to take over as its manager.
Doug organized a maintenance effort that amounted to Bring Your Own Lawn Mower to tidy up the airfield.
“He started gathering people up,” Kyle said, “and he had 15-20 people out with lawnmowers mowing the air strip at the same time.”
One of Doug’s ongoing projects, that Kyle intends to fulfill, was to have hats made for the grass-cutting crew.
Doug and Betty didn’t live in Nocarva long, but their presence here will live on.
“It’s a tragic loss,” Kyle said. “I think it’s a tragic loss to the community, but everybody that I have spoken with said they’re going to continue the Beer on the Pier in their honor and that they’re going to continue the fly-ins in their honor, and not let what he started die.”
Visit Blaylock Funeral Home online at blaylockfh.com for memorial service details or call 252-257-3175.