Balloonist's widow works to build lasting tribute

October 3, 2011 • State News

A hot air balloon inflates during the 40th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M., on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011. Fiesta organizers said 550 balloons and 600 pilots from around the world are registered for this year’s annual event. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Nancy Abruzzo could see everything from the balcony of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum — the tops of the cottonwoods along the Rio Grande, the Sandia Mountains and the field where hundreds of hot air balloons lift off each October.

But it was a patch of bare earth just beyond the museum [auth] that had her attention.

The widow of famed balloonist Richard Abruzzo is on a mission to raise funds to transform this spot into a park with dozens of trees, an amphitheater and a bridge to connect the museum to the launch field.

Not only would it serve as a tribute to her husband, she envisions it as a venue that would draw residents to the area year-round.

For Abruzzo, the creation of The Lost Balloonist Tribute is a way to channel her grief and give back to a community that has helped her and her two young children through a tough time.

“I think some fun things are going to come out of this and I think that’s a really good place for me to put my pain and energy,” she said. “There can be a lot of healing.”

Abruzzo’s life forever changed Sept. 29, 2010. That’s when her 47-year-old husband and fellow pilot Carol Rymer Davis disappeared while competing in a gas balloon race over the Adriatic Sea during a fierce storm. It was two months until their remains and gondola were discovered by a fishing boat off the Italian coast.

Still raw from the pilots’ untimely deaths, the ballooning community continued to remember them as well as the late Sid Cutter, the founder of fiesta, during the opening weekend of the 40th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. This year’s event has drawn more than 550 balloons and 600 pilots from around the world.

Days before the fiesta, Abruzzo launched a nonprofit foundation in the name of her husband to raise money for the tribute project as well as for the city-owned museum and education efforts aimed at taking ballooning into local schools.

She’s also trying to rally support for a $500,000 parks and recreation bond initiative that will be put before Albuquerque voters on Tuesday. If approved, the bond would provide the seed money for the tribute park and amphitheater.

The funding is contingent on matching funds from non-city sources.

Abruzzo is already dedicating the proceeds from the sale of her children’s balloon book to the cause and people can sponsor a tree to be planted at the park.

Her to-do list also includes attracting sponsorships for her classroom visits. She visits at least half a dozen elementary schools each fall to read with students and show them the science behind ballooning by using party balloons, plastic cups and rice.

Talking to students is something Abruzzo and her husband had done for years.

She remembers walking into the kitchen one day and catching him playing with a Dixie cup. All she could do was laugh.

“It was brilliant. It was so simple,” she said of his teaching method. “It’s refreshing to look back at those moments because life is so complicated.”

Abruzzo lights up when she talks about her husband, who was one of the biggest names in the sport of balloon-racing. He was also the son of balloonist Ben Abruzzo, who in 1981 was part of the first team to cross the Pacific Ocean by balloon.

Mixed with Nancy Abruzzo’s smiles and memories were tears. She talked about the hell of not knowing for two months and the “crushing feeling” she gets when thinking about being without him.

Now, it feels like she’s coming out of a fog. She said she feels him around her.

“He would want us to be embracing what brought so much happiness to our lives,” she said.

Abruzzo said there would be no better place for The Lost Balloonist Tribute than nestled between the museum and the launch field.

“Ballooning has taken us to places you’d never go,” she said, fighting back the tears. “You’re traveling through the night and morning through random countrysides and you’re landing in people’s yards and farms. You’re sleeping in somebody’s barn or on their couch. It’s pretty cool.

“We never took a day for granted,” she said.

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