Eddie Rickenbacker's Columbus roots

I know that Rickenbacker International Airport, our former Air Force base, is named for Eddie Rickenbacker, but what's the Columbus connection? Eddie Rickenbacker was a Columbus boy. Born here in 1890, he died in Zurich, Switzerland, and is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery on Columbus's South Side. He's probably best known as a World War I flying ace (he brought down 26 enemy crafts). He had a long career in aviation, including serving as president of Eastern Airlines. And before becoming a pilot, he was a formidable race car driver at Driving Park, an East Side horse track later converted for auto racing. In the 1920s he owned Rickenbacker Motor Company in Detroit and also the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the famous Indy 500.

Eddie was a real survivor, too: He lived through an Eastern Airlines DC-3 crash and, even more harrowing, the 1943 ditching of a B-17 into the Pacific Ocean, where he and his crew members drifted for three weeks before being rescued.

Eddie's father built a modest four-room house at 1334 E. Livingston Ave. around 1895, and that's where Eddie grew up. It stayed in the family until 1960 and is still standing in pretty much its original state. In 1976 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark, one of three in Columbus (the others are the Ohio Statehouse and the Ohio Theatre). After Eddie's death in 1973, Lockbourne Air Force Base, located south of Columbus, was renamed in his honor in 1974.

People talk about the Downtown Lazarus department store on High Street as a really great place to shop, especially at Christmas. What was it like? Thousands of Central Ohioans will recall that great store. Some background: Simon Lazarus, born in Germany in 1807, came to Columbus in 1850 as a rabbi, but by 1851 had a retail clothing store. The business expanded from a single room after the Civil War and eventually filled almost the entire block bounded by State, Town, High and Front streets. It had everything: clothing, sporting goods, shoes, furniture, appliances, toys, watch repair, alterations, coin and stamp collecting—a full-service department store.

Christmas was when it was in its glory, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. The rooftop water tower was draped with lights in the shape of a Christmas tree, visible for miles, and the themed windows along High Street drew huge crowds—the best one was always at the corner of High and Town streets. The store was decorated, of course, and Santa was ready to receive all the little tots and their requests. In the Secret Gift Shop, little kids looking for family gifts would be helped by elves. It was a lot like Higbee's in Cleveland, as depicted in “A Christmas Story,” but without the scary parts.

Alas, all that belongs to the past now, though the Lazarus building is still with us, still with its water tower above, though without the draped lights, and along the Town Street windows at Christmastime you can see some of the actual surviving holiday figures that charmed so many of us so long ago.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column.

Sources: acepilots.com; National Register/NHL registration; various online sources; interview with Nancy Recchie; German Columbus (Arcadia Publishing)