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At 90, Delaware's Oldest Pilot Is Still Flying High

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When Stan Budner visited the doctor to see what could be done about his aching back, the physician discovered “four different things that were wrong,” then informed Budner that if Budner were the doctor’s father, he wouldn’t operate on him.

Budner was in his late 80s at the time, so that seemed prudent. Budner settled instead for three cortisone shots a year to ease the pain. Meanwhile, he moves inexorably forward into the wild blue yonder­—and his 90th birthday this month.

“I’m having a little trouble walking, but I can still get into the cockpit of an airplane,” Budner says.

Budner’s insurance company has told him he is the oldest Delawarean still flying an airplane regularly. Ten years ago, that same firm informed Budner that his rates would triple if he didn’t start flying with an instructor. So every Saturday, Budner checks the wind then calls his friend Al Dohring to decide whether or not he wants to fly.

Or sail.

You don’t get to 90 by sitting around. Budner is still covering ground by land, air and sea, and with the help of a dose of Cutty Sark every night, he hopes to be an active participant in life’s pageant for several years to come.

Budner has lived through the Depression and World War II. He ran a successful business for more than 40 years and raised three daughters. He lives in and loves Wilmington and can be often found sampling the fare of local restaurants, whose nightly specials he can list with the reliability of the most seasoned Yelp reviewer. His one regret? About 10 years ago, he had to give up skiing, which he considers “almost as good as sex.”

“He’s my Energizer bunny,” says Momilani, with whom Budner will celebrate 10 years of marriage next April.

Budner still keeps an office in Wilmington, and he visits it several times a week, though Momilani suspects he does so “just to take some more naps.”

“He always has someplace to go and something to do,” she says.

In a nod to his cranky back and in an attempt to keep his muscles and joints in working order, Budner visits a physical therapist a few times a week. Though he admits that he has slowed somewhat, he refuses to cede anything to time’s ruthless hand. He enjoys looking back, but his focus is always ahead, to the next flight, trip across the waves or tasty meal.

“He lives well. He sails well. He flies well,” says Dohring, who has been flying with Budner for five years and whom Budner taught to sail. “We have a lot of fun together.”

In 1932, when Budner was 5 years old, his father, Erwin, moved to Wilmington from Milwaukee, where he had been distributing newspapers under the aegis of fledgling publisher Moses Annenberg. Annenberg would soon develop a relationship with William Randolph Hearst, and he eventually bought The Philadelphia Inquirer, which at the time was the nation’s third-oldest newspaper. Budner’s father began distributing The Inquirer and quickly became Annenberg’s top man in the area.

Though Budner hadn’t graduated from high school, he was drafted in 1945, then trained in preparation for the invasion of Japan. The dropping of two atomic bombs ended that endeavor, so when he returned from his 18-month military hitch, Budner enrolled at the University of Delaware. He graduated three years later. By then, Erwin Budner had become publisher of the Sunday-only Wilmington Sunday Star. It was a move Budner describes as “a losing proposition,” because it required seven days of staffing for one day of publication. The best part of his father’s new enterprise was that after Erwin put the paper to bed early Saturday morning, he would return home, grab some sleep, then take the family—Budner had a sister, Elaine—out to dinner. “I have always loved eating out,” Budner says.

After graduating from UD, Budner took over his father’s news distribution business, Delmar News Agency, and ran it from 1950 to 1992. During that time, he expanded its operations from papers and magazines to books and other forms of media. He also expanded south, opening the Key News Agency in Marathon, Florida.

“My father turned over the business to me and said, ‘If you need me, call me,’” Budner says. “He let me make all the decisions and run the company.”

One of Budner’s wisest decisions was to empower his drivers to offer suggestions about which types of paperback titles he would stock at specific outlets. If cowboy and romance titles were in high demand at one site, and crime and science fiction books weren’t so popular, he would instruct the drivers to push the successful genres the next time they delivered. By doing that, Budner was able to maximize sales.

“One of the things I was most proud of in my life was that Wilmington was voted the best distributor two times,” Budner says. “We were selling more books than they were in Philadelphia.”

In 1992, Budner “didn’t like what was happening in the industry,” so he decided to sell. The number of distributors was dropping across the nation, and he foresaw a day when a larger company might take him over—at a lesser profit. He got out.

Despite some of time’s inevitable intrusions, Budner enjoys his life. “He has a true joie de vivre,” Momilani says. He met Momilani 11 years ago, not long after his first wife of 58 years, Doris, died. Budner has three daughters (Hope, Faith and Alisa Joy), with whom he “was very involved,” Momilani says, and four adult grandchildren. He often visits the same office he has rented since 1992, and though his attention span has dropped, he does read and handle his correspondence there. Momilani loves his vibrant sense of humor—“he remembers a lot of jokes,” she says—and his spirit.

As Budner moves toward 90 and beyond, he cherishes his opportunities to be in the air and on the seas. He misses skiing, especially since that hobby took him to New England, out west and to Europe. But he can’t complain about anything.

“I’ve had such a great life,” he says.

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