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Geldersma had kept Dickerson in the dark about the Cabo trip; he later told The Kansas City Star that Travolta's people had insisted on silence. "It was kind of kept a secret," Dickerson tells The Pitch. "Nobody told anybody. So I thought we lost a PR opportunity out of it."
The FAA complaint didn't amount to anything, and the Cabo trip forged a bond between Travolta and the museum. In 2005, when he was in town for a benefit for the Boys & Girls Clubs, Travolta told museum officials that he'd be happy to appear at a fundraiser. The offer represented a huge opportunity. But the museum's leadership knew more about flight systems than fundraising.
Paul Sloan stepped into the void.
The members knew little about him at the time that he ran for a position on the board in early 2004. When people asked what he did for a living, he mentioned something about a cleaning business. (According to records, he owned Luxury Carpet Cleaning from 1985 to 1993.) But while Sloan wasn't a TWA guy, he knew how to fly. He once took Geldersma and other museum leaders to a meeting in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in a Beech Baron.
Elected to a seat on the board, he seemed to have a feel for raising money that the more technical-minded members lacked. "Sloan was a hell of a salesman," one former board member says. "He would promise you anything."
Sloan urged the board to get serious and hire a fundraiser. Eventually, he found just the guy: himself. He presented the board an employment agreement in 2006, asking to be named executive director. His proposed salary to run the small nonprofit: $120,000 a year, almost half of the museum's revenue that year.
It was an audacious request. David Nachman, the museum's lawyer, sent a letter to Geldersma, taking issue with the salary and questioning how much power the contract gave the director.
The board passed on Sloan's offer. Sloan sensed that Geldersma, who liked to do things by the book, was an impediment. A few weeks later, he tried to topple Geldersma in the board election. He lost again.
Sloan wasn't shut out completely, however. Around this time, the board designated him as the museum's chief fundraiser. The position was unpaid, but later, multiple witnesses would tell police that Sloan waved around a document indicating that he was entitled to 40 percent of all the money the museum raised.
In early 2007, as Sloan began wearing his Official Fundraiser sash, museum members learned of a plan to build up the organization's coffers.
Meetings took place away from the museum, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kansas City, Kansas. Sloan was there. Dick McMahon, one of the museum's founders, spoke. Other times, Dickerson took the lead. But the message was always the same: The members needed to sue Geldersma — the museum's longest tenured president — for breach of duty.
Geldersma wasn't a universally beloved figure. He could be brusque and "woodenheaded," as one former member describes him. There was also that dark day in 2005, when an engine on the Connie caught fire during a maintenance check. Geldersma received the blame from those who wanted to assign it. The plane hasn't made it to an air show since.
But while the proposed lawsuit would demand that Geldersma and his allies step aside, they weren't really the target. An insurance policy was.
Like most nonprofits, the museum insured its board of directors against claims of wrongdoing. If a jury decided, or Geldersma admitted, that he cost the museum money, the insurance company would be on the hook for damages. The museum could quickly restock its meager reserves.