CHAMPAIGN — To hear Rudy Frasca's friends and colleagues tell it, the founder of Frasca International was a pioneer not only in the field of flight simulators but also in the world of modern-day business start-ups.
"You were an entrepreneur before we knew what 'entrepreneur' meant," banker-economist Ed Scharlau told Frasca — and more than 200 admirers — at a dinner Wednesday evening celebrating Frasca's accomplishments.
It wasn't much of an exaggeration. Frasca founded his flight simulator company in Champaign in 1958 — 55 years ago.
That was about 230 years after the term "entrepreneur" entered the language, but about 30 years before the word began enjoying the cachet it has today.
Frasca was honored as the V. Dale Cozad Entrepreneur of the Year at a fundraiser for the Parkland College Entrepreneurial Program. He was the fourth person to receive the annual award.
Urbana attorney Dick Thies said there couldn't have been a better choice. He called Frasca "the epitome of the word 'entrepreneur'" and termed Rudy and his wife, Lucille, "the Horatio Algers of our community."
Urbana-based Frasca International has produced 2,500 flight training devices used in 70 countries, said Greg Cozad, the evening's master of ceremonies.
Today, the company employs more than 200 people, half of whom are engineers, he said.
Scharlau said an expansion is expected to add another 40 people by the end of 2014.
Plus, he said, the company attracts 400 to 500 visitors a year — many of them from other countries — providing an economic boon to Champaign-Urbana.
In a video, longtime Frasca friend Joe Casserly said Frasca made "a contribution to the aviation industry that is truly worldwide."
Casserly also praised Frasca's role in preserving aviation heritage and vintage aircraft at the Frasca Air Museum at Urbana's Frasca Field.
Several colleagues told of Frasca's flying prowess and playfulness, and family friend Jim Barham called Frasca Field Rudy's "playground, his amusement park."
Son John Frasca, the president and CEO of Frasca International, said his dad was born in 1931 and began taking flying lessons when he was 14 years old.
Rudy washed dishes at a nightclub to earn money to take flying lessons, Thies said.
Rudy Frasca later served in the Navy as an instructor, teaching pilots on the early Link trainers. After the Korean War, he came to the University of Illinois to take classes — and work — at the UI's Aviation Research Lab.
Frasca International — originally known as Frasca Aviation — "grew from a garage operation," John Frasca said. It eventually moved to the southeast corner of Neil and Green streets in Champaign and later migrated to Frasca Field on Urbana's north side.
That paved the way for other development in that area, including O'Brien Auto Park, a new Farm & Fleet store and Soccer Planet, Thies said.
All the Frasca children grew up in the business, and today the company involves three generations of Frascas.
Both Cozad and Thies cited excerpts from Rudy Frasca's book, "From Cubs to Spitfires: My Love Affair With Aviation" — especially his three-step formula for success:
— Know what it is you want to do.
— Study and analyze the situation.
— Use initiative to get it done.
Attain your goals, Frasca added, without stepping on the feet of others.
Another of Rudy's aphorisms, Cozad said, is: "Today is another opportunity to make things work."
John Frasca summed up his dad's business philosophies as: Enjoy your job; take care of your customers; control your growth; don't get mad; look at events as opportunities; and trust people.
He said his dad enjoyed taking technicians and students to dinner as much as he did dining with company presidents.
Rudy Frasca stood to receive his award from Cozad, but delivered his acceptance speech in the video paying tribute to him.
"I'm deeply honored," he said. "Thank you very much."