Rod Macleod, 14 years of dedication to Alberta aviation history

Rod Macleod with the de Havilland Tiger Moth.

He has never turned a wrench or installed a single aircraft rivet. But for the past 14 years Rod Macleod has played a pivotal role in turning the Alberta Aviation Museum into a first-class facility telling Edmonton’s amazing flying history.

“I never got to do any of the fun stuff, just the boring administrative stuff,” jokes Macleod, a Professor Emeritus of History and Classics at the University of Alberta. “But somebody has to do that otherwise the place is not going to survive.”

For the past two years Macleod has been president of the AAM board, leading delicate negotiations to rebuild a fractured relationship with the city and secure a new long-term lease he hopes will ensure the future viability of the museum. Macleod has served on the board, or on our sister organization, the Edmonton Aviation Heritage Society, continuously since 2004. He is stepping down to spend more time with his family and to enjoy a real retirement.

Macleod’s love of aviation predates his 35-year career as a history professor.

“I learned to fly when I was 16 and got my pilot’s licence when I was 17. When I went to university I started out in science and physics and quickly decided that wasn’t for me and switched to history which I really loved.”

Macleod’s flying was short lived due to the financial pressures of family life. But he got involved with the museum after being asked to teach an extension course on Alberta’s aviation history. Macleod, whose specialty is military history, was handed the assignment.

“I knew some parts of the history from the military side. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the Northwest Staging Route and those things were a big part of Canada’s military history. A friend of mine, Pat Myers, had just written a book on the history of aviation in Alberta called Skyriders. So I twisted her arm and she and I jointly taught this extension course. In fact we did it at the museum here.”

Macleod being interviewed by a documentary crew about his knowledge of military and aviation history.

“That got me involved in the museum and I was asked to join the board,” says Macleod who became president in 2004. “I loved the museum from the start. It’s a great place with great people.”

Under Macleod’s leadership the AAM slowly changed from a group of hobbyists rebuilding airplanes to a full-fledged aviation museum. He pushed for a more professional approach including the hiring of our first full-time curator, Lech Lebiedowski. It’s a decision he thinks has been “outstanding” for the museum.

He also helped negotiate the acquisition of two key aircraft, the de Havilland Tiger Moth from Norman Reid, and the Pacific Western Airlines 737.

Macleod was a steadying voice in guiding the museum through the closure of the city centre airport and lobbying city council for a long-term lease that recognizes the historic nature of Hangar 14.

“In 2014 we went to City Council and it agreed it was unreasonable to ask a non-profit group to maintain an 80-year-old building that had been designed to last eight years and is a city and provincial historic site. A lot of knowledgeable people think it’s one of the most important historic buildings in the province of Alberta. And I agree.”

Macleod at our spring Wine and Cheese Fundraiser explaining aviation history to attendees.

Jack Van Norman, who has served on the museum board for nine years, and will take over as interim president, says Macleod was always a wealth of knowledge and had a major impact during difficult negotiations with the city.

“When you walk into a meeting with someone like Macleod at the helm it gives everyone confidence in the program,” says Van Norman. “His reputation as a professor at the University of Alberta is huge. His demeanour is so important. He can push without looking pushy. He’s low key, doesn’t get too excited but makes sure he gets his point across.”

Macleod is quick to credit the team of talented volunteers and staff for the many positive changes and says he is confident the museum is on a sound footing for the future.

“Because of the new lease and because of the commitment (from the city in the order of about $6,000,000) to bring the building fully up to code, the future looks good. We have, and will always have operational struggles, because it’s essentially impossible to run a museum funded only with admissions. No museum on the face of the planet does that. But we are making this place one of the premiere attractions in the City of Edmonton and I think it looks good.”

Sam Steele, a biography

Rod Macleod has a new book coming out this fall, a biography of Sam Steele, a leading figure in the history of the Northwest Mounted Police and the Canadian Military during the First World War . His work is based on eight years of research using a collection of papers, diaries, records and photos acquired by the University of Alberta. Find out more about the book here.