Merced County Times Newspaper
The Power of Positive Press
Jonathan Whitaker

Otto Rigan, proud local veteran with many skills, dies at 97

He was truly a man of many talents.

And he was a high-energy person who once told the Merced Sun-Star: “Curiosity has kept me alive.”

Otto Rigan of Atwater died at home over the weekend with four of his six children at his side. He was 97.

“You could say that all his parts finally wore out, at the same time,” his namesake son Otto “Bruce” Rigan told the Times.

The elder Rigan had been in hospice care for less than a week. And just last month, he showed up at an annual luncheon put on by the Old Timers’ Associations to honor longtime residents of Merced County.

He was seen smiling, and waving a small U.S. Flag enthusiastically as his name was called out for being a county resident for 53 years.

Rigan was touted as a proud veteran with remarkable service, a local businessman and a builder of planes and homes, among other things.

Rigan was born in Vienna, Austria, and moved to the United States as a 6-year-old in 1927. He would later write about those early days in a 155-page autobiographical book entitled “Mucki & I.”

He graduated from Hyde Park High School in Chicago in 1940, and immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps in July at Chanute Air Force Base, with the hopes of becoming an airplane mechanic. He was fascinated with the inner-workings of planes.

He would end up serving to protect the United States of America for 24 years.

As a young airman he was trained as an Airplane Mechanic, with additonal training as an Instrument Specialist and a Sperry Power-Turret Specialist. At first, he was charged with fixing turrets on B-17 aircraft and helping load bombs on the planes during World War II.

He would become a military standout. Rigan was instrumental in developing the 8th Air Force safety policy of dropping ball turrets on the bottom of planes before all emergency belly landings.

In December 1943, Rigan applied and received assignment into the Aviation Cadet Program. He graduated as a Flight Officer in 1945, and commenced a career as a Flight Engineer in B-29s, B-50s and B-36s.

He would serve in the Air Force through the Korean War and then the “Cold Wars.” He was awarded an Air Medal (during peace time) for “heroic action during an in-flight emergency on a B-36.”

Meanwhile, Rigan met Lorraine Wilkerson at a Lawrence Welk dance in Chicago on Feb. 29, 1944. More than a year later, in July of 1945, the two married during a ceremony in San Antonio, Texas.

Together, as an Air Force couple, they moved a total of 35 times, all in the United States. Nevertheless their marriage would last for an incredible 68 years before Lorraine’s passing. The couple also raised six children.

Rigan was stationed mostly at California bases and was attached to the Strategic Air Command, including at Castle in Atwater. In 1958, he became a navigator on a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling plane, and during that time, he helped refuel the top-secret SR-71 spy plane.

Rigan retired in 1964 from Beale Air Force Base northeast of Sacramento; however, the family settled in Atwater.

During the Vietnam War, Rigan flew the Pacific routes with Seaboard World Airlines as a navigator on all-cargo flights.

In 1969, Rigan and his wife launched a retail furniture business in Atwater, which evolved into a thriving antique store. Rigan also operated the Golden Wheel Mobile Home Park.

Over the years, Rigan gave back to his community in various volunteer capacities. He was the PTA president at Mitchell School in 1958, a member and president of the AtwaterChamber of Commerce, Planning Director for Merced County, and more.

Rigan’s hobbies included building things.

He reportedly built his own house in Atwater with just a hammer in only 30 days.  That’s impressive, especially considering the home had five bedrooms. Rigan also built two airplanes.

Rigan also loved investing, art and painting. Recently, he said his greatest joys in life came from his many, many friends in Merced County.

A few years ago, Rigan was part of the first Central Valley Honor Flight from Fresno to Washington, D.C. — a program where World War II veterans spend three days in the nation’s capital touring the memorials. He was also selected as one of the grand marshals for the Veterans Day Parade in Mercedin 2014.

Family survivors include six children: Carol Selkow, Analise Rigan (Meritt Hulst), Anita Poppe(Jeff Poppe), Otto “Bruce” Rigan, Jan Rigan and Tammy Astorino; along with 19 grandchildren, and 16 great grandchildren.

Services for Otto Rigan will be held at 2 p.m., Friday, May 10, at Atwater’s First Methodist Church, 2550 Linden Street.

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