McALLEN, Texas (KLTV) - James Edward Birk, the longtime director of the Great Texas Balloon Race in Longview, died Monday at the age of 76.
According to Birk’s obituary on the Legacy.com website, he died of complications from leukemia at the Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance in McAllen on Monday.
Birk, who lived in McAllen and Defiance, Ohio, was a professional hot air balloonist and a former college professor. He was born on Dec. 16, 1943, and raised on a farm near Rochester, Indiana. He was a graduate of Ball State University and an instructor and chairman of the geology department at Defiance College from 1970-1984 and briefly at Ashland University, according to the obituary.
“His 50-year career as a balloon pilot, competitor, championship director, and event organizer began in 1970 when he obtained his pilot's license and began teaching students to fly at Defiance College,” the obituary stated. “Birk loved ballooning and logged more than 4,000 hours in 46 states and in Japan, Dubai, Canada, and Mexico.”
According to the obituary, Birk flew four years in the Kool Professional Hot Air Balloon Tour and finished as a top money winner in 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1981.
“In 1991, he was the top-ranked United States competitive pilot,” the obituary stated. “He was a member of the United States World Team four times and was in the top 10 at six national championships. He continued to compete and win balloon races until he retired from flying in 2018.”
Birk owned and operated the Kroger Hot Air Balloon Program for 17 years, the obituary stated. He flew over athletic stadiums and appeared at store openings and other store functions. He flew balloons named Big Zoo, Palo Deimos, Who Cares, and Jimbalaya.
The obituary also stated that Birk was co-owner of Air Venture Inc., which provided balloon rides in the Defiance area for many years.
“He was the balloon meister of 10 Balloon Federation of America (BFA) national championships beginning in 1981 and the 1995 World Championship in Battle Creek, Mich,” the obituary stated. “He was a founding member, director and national's championship director from 1999-2007 for the North American Balloon Association. He also directed the Great Texas Balloon Race in Longview from 1993-2019, the Michigan Challenge in Howell, Mich., from 1994-2017 and the Field of Flight Balloon Championships in Battle Creek from 1992-2018.”
Birk also directed almost 40 other events around the country and took part in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta for many years, the obituary stated.
The professional balloonist also won numerous ballooning awards and was enshrined in the BFA Hall of Fame in Indianola, Iowa, the obituary stated.
“Birk was an accomplished woodworker and carpenter, building furniture in his shop. He also made jewelry and enjoyed playing poker,” the obituary stated.
According to the obituary, Birk knew the shortcuts and good restaurants everywhere he went and was known for sharing stories with other pilots and first-time passengers after a flight.
Birk is survived by his wife, his daughters, his daughters' spouses, a sister, and “dozens of beloved friends who were family,” the obituary stated.
“There will be no funeral services, but preferred memorials are to the Palm Valley Animal Society in Edinburg, Texas, the Big Bend Conservancy, the Great Texas Balloon Race or the Fort Defiance Humane Society, Defiance, Ohio,” the obituary stated.