Fred Grotenhuis, Balloonmeister, Remembered
Founder of the Balloon Festival at the Warren County Farmers’ Fair

By Henry Skirbst

If you knew Fred for more than five minutes, several words might immediately come to mind: aviator, adventurer, compassionate, generous, jokester, ice-cream lover, patriot, friend. The sparkle in his eye, his mischievous smile, and his zest for life would draw you in wanting more. He made you wonder where he got the energy to live life so abundantly. Fred was fun to be around and will be missed greatly by many.

Upon Fred’s passing on March 9, 2015, many thoughts were posted online.

“Fred was a great guy.”

“We were so lucky to call him our friend.”

“Fred was the most upbeat person I have ever known. He was always ‘fantastic’ no matter what.”

“The world is a better place because of Fred Grotenhuis, for the way he lived and the way he taught so many of us to live. He touched us all in so many ways.”

“Fred was many things – skilled pilot of balloons, airplanes, helicopters, powered parachutes, and who knows what else; ready adventurer; loving father to his daughters; devoted husband of Giulia; sterling example of how to live; and the best friend a person could ever hope for”

And finally...
“He was truly a faithful, kind, loving, compassionate, and generous man. We could never completely express how thankful we are for the impact he made on the lives of our family... such an example of God’s love.”

Fred wanted everyone to enjoy, with him, a simple truth he held so deeply and which sustained him through some challenging chapters in his life. To share that truth with you, I share a true story first.
It was a cool and cloudy October morning, many years ago. Tory, my wife, had driven me all around, blindfolded, to surprise me for my birthday with an adventure we’d never forget. When we reached our destination, she took off my blindfold. The first face I saw was Fred’s. Smiling at me, he said, “Are you ready?”

A lover of flying machines myself, I could hardly contain my first-flight excitement as I watched the colorful balloon filling with hot air. Soon it was time to board the gondola; Fred looked at me again and said with a smile, “Let’s go!”

We drifted higher and higher over familiar terrain; it was the most incredibly peaceful experience you could ever imagine. Then as we crossed the Delaware and looked over the mountains behind us, we noticed the clouds were getting thicker above us. So we asked Fred, “What would happen if it starts to rain?” He looked at us with a smile and said, “We might get a little wet.”

Sure enough, raindrops began falling, dripping their way down the balloon. Then we heard a “pfft” sound from burner above our heads. Tory and I had no idea anything was wrong when Fred looked at us, with a smile, and asked if either of us “had a light.” We both chuckled as we said, “No, we don’t smoke Fred.” Then with a very calm and comforting voice, he informed us we were experiencing what is technically called a “flame out.”

As we descended, with no hope of rising again, he prepared us for what was about to happen. He gave us various instructions on the way down, but I only remember his final words. “We’ll be landing hard,” he said. “Bend your knees and hold on.”

So we did exactly what he said as we hit the ground, then again, and again. Although I think Tory was eager for our ride to end, I thought it was the coolest thing ever! While we were packing up, Fred shared with us that, together, we experienced his very first “flame out.” Then he added that, “every landing you walk away from is a successful one.”

Well, we literally bounced back up the following week for another ride. This time, Fred showed up with a brand new, working lighter. He tested it for us with a huge smile on his face before we even started filling the balloon. We trusted Fred with our lives on more than one occasion, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat, if we could.

I believe this story can help relay the essence of the simple, uncomplicated truth Fred wanted you to most know. Fred asked me that morning, “Are you ready?” I said yes; and it led to an awesome adventure. But he wanted you to be asked that same question about your life. Tomorrow is promised to no one. Thankfully, Fred was ready; but he wanted you to be ready too.

When we saw the storm clouds getting thicker, Fred told us, “we might get a little wet.” Then, we had a “flame out” and he told us to “bend your knees and hold on.” When you put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior, it doesn’t mean you will have a problem-free life. Fred was challenged by Parkinson’s, but not defeated by it. He took the words of James, the brother of Jesus, to heart when he said, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”

When Fred told us, with a smile, that “every landing you walk away from is a successful one,” he shared his optimism toward life’s rough landings. Through both good and bad times, Fred echoed the words of Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away”. His optimism and fearlessness was a direct result of the faith he had in his Lord and Savior.

One final post sums it all up: “A great sense of humor and an adventure seeker with no bounds... a huge heart and the ability to calm a rising storm.”


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