CMSAF Robert D. Gaylor
When Robert D. Gaylor arrived at basic training in 1948, he was introduced to a new world, one he says made him feel “like a kid at Christmas.” He was born on May 8, 1930 and raised in two small towns in Indiana, the second of eight children. The Air Force was an opportunity to get out of town, travel, and learn new skills. He quickly fell in love with his new life and soon knew the Air Force would be a lifelong adventure.
Throughout his career, Gaylor experienced many unexpected twists and turns. He served as a security police member, a military training instructor (MTI), and an academy instructor and served tours in Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Germany. His excitement for the unknown allowed him to look at each twist and turn as a new adventure, choosing to stick to his mantra of “Forward, March” rather than fight against the opportunity. He developed a passion for leadership and committed the latter part of his career to sharing what he knew with as many Airmen as possible.
In 1977 Gen. David C. Jones, chief of staff of the Air Force, selected Gaylor to serve as the 5th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. In two years Gaylor traveled extensively, listening to Airmen and tackling issues such as equal travel benefits for enlisted Airmen, maternity uniforms for female Airmen, and an ongoing institutional drug and alcohol problem. He retired in 1979 but has continued to stay very close to the Air Force. Today he regularly visits Airmen, sharing his passion for both leadership and the Air Force.
Gaylor sat down for an interview in August 2015 to reflect on his experience after more than 68 years in or near the Air Force. During the interview, he shared his memories of an Air Force establishing itself as a separate service, his time as the senior training noncommissioned officer (NCO) of a Women in the Air Force (WAF) training squadron, and his passion for leadership. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Chief, first of all, thank you for doing this. We just want to start by taking you all the way back to 1948 when you came into the Air Force and arrived at basic training. What were your impressions when you first joined the Air Force?
I was born in Bellevue, Iowa, population 2,000. When I was nine we moved to Rossville, Indiana. The sign outside the town said 626 people. When I was 13, we moved to Mulberry 10 miles away, population 880. There was no television then. Whatever we knew we read in the paper or radio, so I was very naïve and I didn’t have any knowledge about the world other than my own world.
So when I joined the Air Force it was with great excitement. I was like a kid at Christmas. Everything was a new experience. I had never ridden a train. I rode a train three days to Lackland, everything was fun, exciting. I was a wide-eyed hick from the sticks. Really. I had never, ever talked to a black person, an Asian person, probably not even a Catholic...so my background and knowledge level was very minimal. Fortunately, I had a great attitude. I wanted to experience things I had not, so I was so excited, and why not?
What was that experience like for you—how many weeks was basic training then?
Basic training was 13 weeks. We were met at the train station in San Antonio [Texas]. We boarded a bus, and first thing we were told was to shut up. So we shut up and rode to Lackland [AFB, Texas]. It was fairly early in the morning, and we were taken to a big building. There was a yellow line and the “yeller-ater,” the guy yelling at us said, “Follow the yellow line, and whatever happens, happens.” All I know is that I followed the line. I took off all my clothes, got a haircut in the nude in a barber chair, got into the shower, continued down the line, got two shots in my arm, a New Testament Bible, and an issue of clothing. They didn’t measure. “What size are you?” Medium. And I had a duffel bag. “Fill the bag, go in that room, and sit on your duffel bag and shut up.”
All of that happened within maybe an hour and a half. So I’m in a one-piece fatigue uniform, cap down over my eyes, and I shut up and sat there. I didn’t know anything. There were 60 of us new Airmen.
We boarded a bus and rode to a single-story barracks. They broke us into two 30-man groups, marched us into the barracks and I was assigned an upper bunk. All of that happened in less than an hour.
Then a little skinny three-striper came in and said, “My name is Justin, and if any of you feel you can whip me, come on up.” And I thought, well, I’m not going up there because he may be a black belt expert or something. There were guys bigger than me and they didn’t move. Then he said, “Now we know who’s in charge, don’t we? You had your chance. From now on, you will do what I say.” That was good enough for me, wow. I was in scouting, but it wasn’t that demanding.
It was all fast-paced, no minorities in my flight. There were 60 of us, Flight 3583, living in two barracks. The latrine was three buildings down, you went down the sidewalk with your ditty bag and your towel over your shoulder in your underwear. It was so new. Wow!
We had a “G.I. party.” I didn’t know whether that was cookies or what. It turned out to be scrub brushes. We cleaned the floor on hands and knees. The discipline was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Awesome. After basic training you received your job. Did they offer you jobs during basic training? From what I understand, you were initially disappointed with the choices you had.
Believe it or not, we left Lackland not knowing our career field. They marched us into a room at Lackland and said, “Here is your base assignment. They’ll decide how to use you when you arrive.” They called five of us for Waco Air Base, Waco, Texas. On 10 December 1948, I left Lackland a veteran of 13-weeks’ service. Seventy-two dollars pay a month, had an Army PFC [private first class] stripe on my arm. I couldn’t wait to go on leave to Indiana and show off my uniform. I rode the train all the way back home, was home nine days and then left 22 December, rode the train back to Waco.
We were advised at Lackland to report to personnel upon arrival. Everything I owned was in my duffel bag. I was in my Army Air Force uniform we had been issued. I reported to personnel and a corporal said, “My job is to find you an assignment.” He said, “You’re lucky, I have three choices and you get to pick.” Apparently not everyone got choices. He said, “You can be a cook, firefighter, or military policeman.” I had seen World War II movies where control tower, “land on runway so-and-so.” So I had visions of something glamorous and romantic and “Air Force-y.” I must have hesitated because I remember he said, “I don’t have all day, pick one or I’ll pick one for you.” He turned hostile within seconds. Based on that I said, “I’ll take military police.”
He wrote a name and a building number on a piece of paper, said “Report to this name, this number. Next.” He was through with me in about a minute. I was classified in the cops. I drug my duffle bag across the parade field looking for building whatever and walked in and said, “Here I am.” Who are you? “I’m PFC Robert D. Gaylor.” Okay. You’re now a cop. I’ll take you over to the barracks and assign you a bunk.
Things happened so quickly and without any sophistication what-so-ever. That was 23 December. On 25 December, Christmas morning, from one o’clock to five o’clock in the morning I guarded the finance building armed with a 30-caliber carbine, scared to death. No training. All I knew was my general orders. I’m guarding the finance building with a carbine, wondering, “How did I get here? What am I doing?” That was the beginning. Within a month I was working the main gate. No training.
No tech school?
No tech school at first. In May of ’49, six months after arrival, the first sergeant called me in and said, “Gaylor, you appear rather motivated. We have a quota for MP [military police] school at Camp Gordon, Georgia, and we’ve picked you.” I rode a bus from Waco, Texas, to Augusta, Georgia, through the Deep South in May of ’49. I had never seen a colored water fountain, colored eat here, colored restroom, colored sit in the back of the bus . . . I had never seen that. That was all new to me. I was wide-eyed, but I had always wanted to meet people from other cultures, so in one way it was a positive experience, and in another way it was very confusing. I couldn’t—if you had asked me why it was that way, I could not have explained. Apparently that’s the way it was.
What was the rank structure and promotion like Then?
In April of ’49, I’d been in the Air Force eight months and was promoted to corporal. In those days the commander apparently had a desk full of stripes, and if he decided, he could promote you.
When I joined there were three choices: three-year enlistment, one-year enlistment with a five-year Reserve obligation, or an indefinite enlistment. You could sign up for indefinite, meaning that you could say I’ve had enough at any time, or the Air Force could say we’ve had enough of you. The majority of the cops in my unit were one year active, five-year Reserve, and they razzed the heck out of me. “Hey, Lifer.” I was called Lifer when I had eight-months’ service because those guys—basic training, about nine months at Waco, and back to Pittsburgh or wherever.
The laugh turned out to be on them because in 1950, when the Korean conflict broke out, the Reserves were recalled, and a lot of those guys ended up in Korea, whereas I didn’t go until later. So at the time they thought, I’ll do my year, avoid the draft, go back five years Reserve. So I think the reason I got picked for MP school is because they weren’t going to pick the guy who was going to be there for seven, eight, nine months where as I was on a three-year enlistment.
My pay as a corporal went from $72 to $80. We reported for pay, stood in line, signed the payroll, went down the pay line—maybe a dollar to the Red Cross, two dollars for GI laundry. By the time you got to the end of the line, you had maybe $64, all mine. The first sergeant would say, “Okay, get over to the PX [post exchange], buy your necessities so you don’t run out.” It’s a great memory.
I lived in an open bay barracks where you knew everything everybody had, said, did. You’d go in the shower, come back, and maybe your watch would be gone from your bed. There was that downside, but, call me crazy, I found it exciting. I might have been the easiest Airman anyone ever supervised. I never complained. I thought everything was great—Clean the barracks, “Oh, boy, something to do.” I was into baseball and softball. I always wanted someone to play catch or someone to hit fly balls to me.
One didn’t go anywhere. There were only four cars in my whole squadron at Waco. The first sergeant ran a survey, how many of the cops in our squadron had a high school diploma? I think it came out around 16 percent. So, “You’re one of those guys with a high school diploma. Oh, look at you.” That was really something! In fairness to those who did not, they left high school to go fight the war, and so you can’t fault them. Many of them went on to get their GED [general education diploma], and many of them went through life with an eighth grade education—so the education level was quite low. I don’t remember any college graduates.
That was during the beginning stages of our Air Force as a separate service. Can you comment on how that transition went, and how we separated ourselves from the Army?
I wore two sets of collar brass, US and propellers. We had a [Gen Henry] Hap Arnold patch. We sewed it on our sleeve. Back then there were hash marks indicating years of service, and a bar indicating overseas service. I didn’t have those. I thought, “Oh, he’s been overseas, and he’s been in years.” I think the hash marks were three years each. I didn’t have any ribbons. Now I see Airmen with a rack of 12 ribbons and three stripes on their arm. My first ribbon was the Army Good Conduct Medal, and I didn’t get that until I’d been in two, three years. I had one little ribbon. Then came a marksmanship ribbon, and I had two. They changed longevity from a hash mark to a ribbon—the blue ribbon. Eventually I had with five-, six-years’ service, three ribbons: Marksmanship, Army Good Conduct, and Longevity. You didn’t get many ribbons then; so there is a tremendous difference in ribbons.
What was your experience with segregation, and the end of that, which happened around that same time?
I was a cop, so I drove around Waco Air Base on base patrol, and over by Gate 2 lived the black Airmen. They had their own dining hall; they had their own vehicles. But because I was a cop, I’d pull up beside them and just talk. So I knew Tom Farmer and Cliff Schaefer, but they lived over by Gate 2. There were five barracks. They had their own first sergeant, Sergeant Jackson.
In July of ’49, the President Truman decision was enacted. Segregation was over. I had no problem with that. “It’s about time.” I can still see in my mind a two-and-a-half-ton truck backing up to the barracks steps, and here they came, clothes hanger, foot locker, Cliff Schaefer, Tom Farmer, Broussard, Carr, Townsend, I knew them. “Hey, good to see you, good to see you, your bunk’s over there.” Within 15 minutes we were integrated. Eight black cops moved in, and, “Okay, integration has happened.”
You know barracks rumors—the rumor was, if you find in your heart that you cannot live with a member of the other race, you simply go to the orderly room and announce it and you can be released from the Air Force. So that was a rumor. Captain Griffis put a stop to that. He called us all together and said, “The first one of you that causes a problem, you’ll be court-martialed.” That put a stop to the barracks rumor, and we had no choice but to try and work it.
I’m sure there were some scuffles, but there were some scuffles between the white guys before the blacks moved in. I had no problem with it. None. I thought, what took so long? Why not sooner?
What was interesting, in the barracks, two things happened when the blacks moved in. One, the music changed. For the first time, I heard Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine. I’d never heard of them. I enjoyed Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra. The music changed. I heard music I had never heard. And, how do I say this delicately, the smell of the barracks changed in a positive way. The black Airmen used Noxzema a lot, and you could smell that. I didn’t know why until I found out later it was the ingrown hairs, and the Noxzema provided a cooling effect. That was never explained to us. I didn’t understand that, and I didn’t ask. In ’49 and ’50, those things I remember. The music and the—whatever, drugstore smells, different hair pomade, odors I had not smelled. I had no problem with that. I was a happy guy.
I loved being a cop. One time, Provost Sergeant Howard came in the barracks. He said, “I’m looking for four permanent gate guards. The four of you will be the only four who work the gate. Eight hours on, 24 off; a day shift, off 24 hours; a swing shift, off 24 hours; a mid-shift. If you’re interested, knock on my door,” and he left. My buddy said, “You don’t want to do that, Bob. You have to be sharp, you have to shine your boots.” And I said, “If I’m going to be a cop, I want to be top of the line.” So I went and knocked on the door. For about a year, I worked the main gate. I was working when they changed the name of the base from Waco Air Force Base to James Connally, a lieutenant colonel from Waco killed during World War II. I opened the door for Secretary of the Air Force [William “Stuart”] Symington when they drove him up to the gate for the ceremony. Wow!
You know, that’s a great story because I remember how I felt. I called my mom. “Mom, I opened his door”—even now, when an Airman asks me to pose for a picture I never, ever say no, because I remember. That’s a great message, never forget how you felt. Never forget where you came from. I remember opening the door for the secretary and feeling that I was the greatest cop on Earth. I’ve never forgotten where I came from and what it was like back when I was a young Airman.
Did you know you wanted to serve a full career then?
I was a cop, and I went home to Indiana on leave twice. One thing I learned, 30 days away from my Air Force was too long. I was ready to go back to camp after about five days. So I promised myself I would never take more than a 10-day leave. I never did, ever, because it was too long to be gone from the Air Force.
Okay, so three-year enlistment, I was coming up on my three years and beginning to think, “Do I want to stay in, get out? What do I want to do?” North Korea invaded South Korea in the summer of 1950, and the Air Force world changed. We were getting ready to go blue. I had worn OD [olive drab] and khakis and one-piece fatigues.2 I was beginning to see two-piece fatigues, blue uniforms. I was beginning to see the removal of the brass, the oxidized brass, the belt buckles were changing, and I thought this is pretty exciting.
There was no Clothing Sales. You got your clothes from squadron supply. If you ripped your khaki shirt, you took it down to supply; the specialist would reach over the counter and hand you a replacement. When it was time to go blue, the supply sergeant called us in individually, measured us and ordered our issues. So we didn’t all get blues at the same time. Some of my buddies got their issue and I was angry. I said, “Oh, they got the blue uniform,” and so I waited for my issue to come in and then got to go blue. That was in the fall of ’50, so it took about three years for the Air Force to become the Air Force. You can’t just change your clothing overnight. They started at basic training, issuing to the new Airmen. Those out in the field got ours when available. Clothing Sales opened in 1953 maybe, when they started giving us an allowance to buy our clothes and stopped issuing them out of supply.
Is that when the ranks changed as well?
The first Air Force rank I wore was staff sergeant. I was a PFC, corporal, buck sergeant. I made buck sergeant in nine months. I got back from MP school in ’49, and they promoted me. I had been in less than a year, and I had three stripes. I made staff in two years, three months. December 13, 1950, I sewed on staff. And I hadn’t even completed my first three-year enlistment.
When the Korean War broke out, at first it was like, “Where’s Korea?” No big deal. The Reserves and the Guard initially fought most of the war, so it didn’t really affect me that much until my three-year enlistment was up. In the summer of 1951, my three years was up, and I was a staff sergeant. Twenty-one years old, loving the Air Force, and I went to Personnel.
The guy said, “You got two choices: reenlist or we’ll extend you.” And I said, “For how long would you extend me?” He said, “Well, how should I know? Until the war is over.” And I thought, well it’s three years or until the war’s over; it might be 10 years. So I reenlisted for three more. Finance counted out, in my hand, seven 20s and a 10— $150 bonus. I had never ever seen that much money in my life. I had seven 20s and a 10 in my hand, and I went, “Wow, this is great.” Then I went downtown and bought a car—my first car—a ’39 Chevy. So I had a car and suddenly everybody was, “Hey, Bob, when are we going to town?” [Laughter]
I want to go back to when you were talking about the blue uniforms and the ranks changing. Did that help Airmen feel like, hey, we are part of a separate Air Force?
You know, it was so gradual. Let’s pretend that everybody had put on the rank and new blue uniform all at once, it would have been, wow. But because it was so incremental and spread out, I’m not sure anyone noticed it. There was a base in San Marcos [Texas] called Gary AFB—closed years ago.3 I went to visit two of my buddies there, and they were wearing the new chevron; I had never seen it. “Ooh, look at that.” And I was still wearing the buck sergeant stripe. So, it took, oh, gosh, six months to two years to get everybody clothed and striped. So, it was so incremental I’m not sure there was any great fanfare.
I’ll also tell you there was no Air Force Times. There was a monthly commander’s call where the commander would get up, “All right, listen up.” He would brief us the latest policies, “Okay, thank you.” So, the information chain was minimal. And who cared? I didn’t care what was going on at a MAJCOM [major command] or the Pentagon. I could care less. My world was this: softball, being a cop, eating a piece of chicken, going to the club, getting a beer. That was the difference. You saw the same people at chapel, at the club, and playing softball. And on Friday night they didn’t split in a million directions, everybody stayed on base.
Life was simpler, less complicated, and, therefore, I was not aware, nor did I care. And if we got some unusual decision we’d say, some idiot up above—for example, some general decided they didn’t like to see a T-shirt above your shirt; so, we had to all buy V-neck T-shirts so the T-shirt didn’t show. That was about ’54 or ’55. You had to throw away all your T-shirts and buy V-neck. Somebody decided that every car on base should have a red reflective tape across your rear bumper, or you couldn’t register your car on base. So there were these decisions, but when they were made you never knew. You would just say, “Who is the idiot that did that,” and you’d go on about your business. There was no, “I think I’ll e-mail the chief of staff or write to the Air Force Times.” [Laughter] Whatever happened in your life, you just saluted smartly and went about your business.
You talked about integration and Letter 35-3. How did the leadership respond?
When Capt. Griffis said, “The first one that causes problems would be court-martialed,” he got my attention. I guess I was so naïve I thought that America suddenly just flipped a button and we all began singing Getting to Know You. But, of course, it didn’t happen that way. All I had to do was go into Waco and see the ugly segregation. The Air Force was a step ahead. On base, if you stood up and said something derogatory, you’d probably be in trouble. Off base it still was rampant. It took many, many years, into the ’60s—Dr. [Martin Luther] King and others. The Air Force did it with an edict: You will live together. The social climate took many years.
Women also began joining the Air Force in the late ’40s. I know you had a unique experience in your career when you were an instructor for a basic training squadron of women. Can you tell me about that?
WAF.4 They were WAF, Women in the Air Force. I came out of Korea in 1957 with orders for Lackland. I had told the clerk in Korea I wanted to go to Lackland, and he said he could guarantee that. I said, “How?” He said, “Just trust me.”
So I got to Lackland and I went to the cop squadron to sign in, and the first sergeant said, “I don’t show Gaylor coming; I’m not sure you’re coming in here. I’ll bet you’re going to teach at the air police school.” He gave me directions, and I drove across Lackland thinking I’m going to be an air police instructor. I got over there, and the guy said, “I don’t show you coming in.” Now, I’m confused. He said, “Let me see your orders.” And then he said, “Look, after your name on your orders there’s a capital T in parentheses.” I had seen that in Korea, “What does it mean?” He said, “You’re going to be a TI [training instructor].” I asked, “What’s a TI?” He said, “A basic training instructor.” I said, “How did that happen?” He said, “You volunteered.” Johnson volunteered me to be a MTI, knowing I wanted to go to Lackland. I didn’t know it. So, I was now a TI, and because of my positive attitude, I said, “Forward, March.” You know, some guys might say, “How do I get out of it, who do I have to talk to? I’m blind in one eye.” I said, “Forward, March.”
I became a TI in 3709, all male squadron. I was a street TI, a master sergeant marching troops down the street. It was the best thing that ever happened. Fortunately, I had a senior Airman who knew what he was doing, or I’d been lost. I did Flight 200 and Flight 66. I put two flights through, and they moved me to Area NCO.
I was in 3709 two years, and the commander called me and said, “You’ve been nominated to be the senior training NCO in the WAF basic training.” I knew the girls were up there on the far corner of the base, and other than that I saw them march in parades. I knew nothing else about them. He said, “No promotion goes with it. It’s just a higher job than you have now.” I’ve always been one to believe if it’s a higher position you better take it; you know? I had to go for an interview, and my wife had to go because I’d be there with all those women.
So Selma and I went for an interview. This was the fall of 1959, and I was being interviewed by three females. I’d never spoken with one, I don’t think. Many bases didn’t have any, because they didn’t have dorms for them. As far as I know, most women were at Travis [AFB, California] or Westover [AFB, Massachusetts]. They were flight attendants or flight nurses or medical. They interviewed me, and I apparently impressed them; they hired me. I became senior training NCO for the 3743rd WAF basic training squadron—Bob and his 400 women. And it was all new to me.
One thing I found out was how quickly the young ladies learned. They seemed to grasp stuff quicker. There were no left-feet marchers, like in the male squadron where there were some guys you could never get in step. I used to march with the ladies in parades with a shorter pace, instead of 30-inch it was about 28-inch, it was just right for me. They learned quickly, and they were motivated and wanted to serve.
Maj. McAmis, the commander, said to me one day, “I’m having a consultant from Braniff Airlines come in to teach posture and grooming techniques to the instructors so they can teach it to the trainees. I’d like you to sit in so that you can appreciate the training we’re giving.” I sat through three days of training on how to apply my makeup, how to select my wardrobe, how to fix my hair, how to stand. I would go home and my wife would say, “What did you learn today?” “Well, let me show you how to stand graciously.”
The female TI’s were so motivated, but you didn’t get away with anything. They’d get in your face in a minute.
For two years I was the WAF senior training NCO. There were seven career fields female Airmen could be used in, that was it. We could train 8 flights of 40 each. That meant eight times 40, 320 Airmen. They could only go to certain bases in 1960–61.
Okay, fast forward to 1970. It became obvious we had to bring in more women. The draft ended; retention was low. What do we do? Let’s bring in more women. Well, there was a lot of dissension: “I’m not working for a woman; I don’t want women working for me.” I can remember many times I would say, “Hey, big mouth, let me tell you something. They learn very quickly, they want to serve, they are highly motivated; I suggest you shut up and give them a chance.” I said that many times in ’70, ’71. My basic training experience helped me smooth the integration of more women into the force. We were about four percent; in ’74 we went to seven percent. We opened up cops, maintenance, career fields, and I was out there saying, “Yay!”
Now we’re up to about 1975–76, and I was at a meeting and somebody said, “You know what, we’re losing a lot of talent. The women are coming in, we’re training them at Keesler [AFB, Mississippi], Sheppard [AFB, Texas]. We’re promoting them to senior Airman, staff sergeant, technical sergeant. They get married, they get pregnant, and then leave the Air Force. We’re losing all that talent.” “What are you suggesting? That we allow them to stay in? You’ve got to be kidding. You’ve got to have lost your head. A pregnant Airman? An Airman with child?”
“Uh, yeah. [Laughter] Why not? Let’s give it a try.” So initially it was by waiver only. You had to ask for a waiver.
Now we’re up to about ’77. I went out and about all over the Air Force. I’d go in an office and there was a lady in civilian clothes, “Good afternoon, Chief.” I asked, “You’re a civilian employee?” “No, I’m a tech sergeant.” “Are you on leave?” “No.” Well, she would stand up and the pregnancy was apparent. This was in ’76, ’77. I went back to the Pentagon and said, “There was a bit of confusion.” “What are you suggesting?” “Not sure, maybe a maternity uniform.” “You’ve got to be kidding...a maternity uniform?”
I was on the uniform board, and we met and we had Wright Patterson AFB [Ohio] make up a prototype maternity uniform. We started with a winter uniform only, and they gave the board a skirt that had the U-shape. We passed that around and some members didn’t want to touch it, like a hot potato. A female general was chairman of the board. She asked, “Members of the board, what is your recommendation?” Seemed to me to be time. If we’re going to allow them to stay in, we needed to clothe them. We started with the winter uniform. The work uniform, ABUs [Airman battle uniform] or whatever they were called then, came later. We started with the blue uniform and gradually, incrementally, all items came. I look back now and my decision was sort of, “seems to me to be about time.” Now when I look back I think, wow, that was a monumental decision.
What is interesting, in my travels now in this century, I tell this story, and female Airmen ask, “You mean there hasn’t always been maternity uniforms?” I say, “There hasn’t always been maternity.” We’re talking just 30 years. It’s part of the Air Force evolution.
What was the general response from Airmen as the role of women expanded?
Let’s pretend that you’re an Airman who doesn’t go along with that. We’d say to you, “Simply live with it or get out.” In my case, my attitude was invariably, it must be time. Looks to me like a necessary transition. There is no question we were influenced greatly by societal activity. Whatever is going on out there usually carries over into the military. The military is a mirror reflection of society, and to go against it is somewhat futile. Let’s suggest I had sat at the meeting and said “I don’t agree with keeping women in the Air Force, I definitely don’t agree with maternity uniforms.” They’d have probably said “And we don’t agree with your disagreement.” In my case it was to support the decisions and to explain the need and reason for change.
I would stand in front of Airmen in a maintenance hangar and one would ask, “Why are you placing women in the maintenance field? I’m not carrying their 55-pound toolbox.” I answered, “You may not have to. She might want to carry yours, along with hers.”
Hair was a big issue in the ’70s. Everything was hair; there was hair all over the place. We would go to staff meetings, and all we would talk about was hair. The Vietnam War was over; people were seeking true equal opportunity. Drugs were becoming prevalent. You could open a door to a dormitory, and the smell of hash would hit you in the face. Those were issues that we had to work, but hair was the number one issue.
I was visiting in Guam, and I was in a hanger talking to Airmen, and I look out and there is a tall guy in the back of the group of about 30 and this guy’s hair was slicked down; it looked like grease. He raised his hand and said, “I have a question. Why can’t I wear an earring?” I asked, “You want to wear an earring?” He said, “Yeah.” I was totally caught off guard—“But why?” He said, “It expresses my individuality.” “I’ll tell you what to do with your individuality—get the hell out of my Air Force.”
I went back to my room, and I reflected. I handled his question poorly. He had caught me so off guard. I said to myself, “Boy, you blew that one.” I thought I’d never see him again, but he deserved something better than what I gave him. Little did I know that that was the advent of piercings and tattoos. That would have been late ’78—I would have bet you anything he was going to ask about hair, and it was piercings. I retired in ’79, so I didn’t have to deal with it, but my successors [CMSAF James M.] McCoy and [CMSAF Arthur L.] Andrews had to deal with piercings and tattoos.
Once again it’s what I call the evolution of the force. Every group feels they have to express their own generation, their own individuality.
So going back, I think you spent four years or so as an MTI...
Four years, four months. Two years as a male instructor and two years, three months as a female instructor. I didn’t volunteer, but I’m glad I did it. You cannot help but learn while you’re teaching. I learned customs and courtesies, firing ranges, and nuclear explosions—I learned all of that because I had to teach it, how to set the sights on a weapon, etc. Four years plus was enough. I was ready to go back to being a cop. Some guys wanted to stay there for a long time, but I said farewell, and I went to Japan to be a cop again. I was a master sergeant.
Let me tell you a quick story, if Gaylor can tell a quick story. In 1958 I managed the Lackland Warhawks baseball team. By order of the base commander, those of us on the team were relieved of duty at noon every day. By written rule, my day ended at noon to either practice or play a game in Alpine, Texas, or Corpus Christi, San Angelo. So my unit made me an academic instructor. I’ve always enjoyed classrooms. I’d teach three or four classes and say, “See you all,” and I’m out of there.
In October of ’58, after a season of baseball, I was due an annual APR [Airman Performance Report]. Second Lieutenant Moser was my rating official. I was an area NCO and was in charge of the four flights. He called me in to review the appraisal with me. He gave me two checks down the middle of 5 ratings—two 3s, and three 4s, no 5s. Lowest grading I’d ever received. As a cop, I’d always gotten the highest ratings. He handed it to me, and I became angry, not at him, but I was seething. On the back, the first line said, “Master Sergeant Gaylor appears to be a very bright and young, intelligent noncommissioned officer. However, he was gone most of the summer playing for the base baseball team. Master Sergeant Gaylor must make a key decision: Does he want to be a jock or a noncommissioned officer?” I was angry, seething.
I went home and complained to my wife. She said, “It’s a pretty good statement: Do you wanna be a jock, play ball, get off duty at noon, or do you want to be a noncommissioned officer?” It made me think. He was probably the most courageous rater I’ve ever had. He told the truth. He said what I needed to hear. If more supervisors would do that: “Do I want to be mediocre, or do I want to be great?” He put it on me.
In the spring of ’59, when I heard the cracks of the bats hitting the ball, I knew it was time. I decided I wanted to be an NCO. I took up umpiring, which I could do off duty. But I thank him. I have never seen him since, but he told me what I needed hear. He influenced my career by that line, “does he want to be a jock,” which I could have been. I was good enough to be one, “or do I want to be a noncommissioned officer?” It’s just a great story that makes a great point of leaders rating people based on their performance.
You became an NCO Academy instructor later as well, so you were an MTI, and then an NCO Academy instructor.
In the ’50s and ’60s NCO academies were owned by commands. Not every command had an academy. If you were in a command that didn’t have an academy, you never went. I made senior master sergeant in Tachikawa, Japan, in 1963. I had never been to an academy or a leadership school. I had no PME [professional military education]. I had read a couple of books, but I was a senior master sergeant with no formal education.
I left Japan for Columbus AFB in Mississippi and SAC [Strategic Air Command]. I got a call in November ’64, “You’re going to NCO Academy at Barksdale [AFB, Louisiana].” I said, “I’m a senior master sergeant. Why don’t you send some deserving tech?” I drove down to Barksdale, asking why I am going to NCO Academy? I get there; there were 120 students, and I was the only senior master sergeant. The rest were techs and masters. I’m told, “You’re the class leader.” “Well, yeah, I’m the only senior. What am I doing here?”
Within two days I realized why I was there. They were teaching me things I never knew: effective writing, effective speaking, work simplification, leadership. I had never heard of Abraham Maslow. I didn’t know his hierarchy of needs. Every day we marched, and every student had to give 14 commands in two minutes. A lot of the students had trouble, so I began an adjunct every night in the day room. I would take a classmate outside, “To the rear, march on the right foot, left face, salute.” I really got motivated. I thought this class was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally.
Banquet graduation night: “May I have the envelope please? And the honor graduate from Columbus [AFB], Mississippi, senior master . . .” Well, I’ll be damned. I get the Academic Award, the Honor Graduate Award, and first runner-up to the Commandant’s Award. I returned to Columbus AFB filled with pride, picture in the base paper with the wing commander.
Three days later, the academy called, “We have an opening on the faculty, and you’re our first choice.” “I’m what?” “You say the word, and we’ll transfer you down here.” “Wow! I’ll take it.”
Within a week, the process had started to move me to Barksdale. I left the cops. My major called me a traitor, but I transferred. I’d only been at Columbus a year.
The Vietnam War was escalating. I left the cops, arrived at Barksdale with my spouse and four kids in a ’59 Plymouth station wagon. They had temporarily closed the academy to air condition the student dorm, so they sent me to an academic school at Maxwell. They taught me how to get up in front of a group, put a lesson plan together and use training aides, visuals. I came back, and I was pumped. I taught two classes, and the Vietnam War closed all the academies. So, what do we do? Find a job.
I went down to the cop squadron at Barksdale, “Here I am.” “Who are you?” “I’m Gaylor.” “What do you want?” “I want a job.”
I became a cop at Barksdale simply because the academy closed. All of us instructors had to go back to our career field. I got orders for Korat, Thailand. I moved the family off base into Shreveport, [Louisiana,] rented a house, and off I went to Thailand as a cop in January 1967. In April 1968, I made chief—four years in grade as a senior.
One day the Stars and Stripes headline read, “Paul W. Airey Selected to Be First Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.” I knew they were selecting one, but I was rooting for Jeff Marsh because he was Thirteenth Air Force, who we came under, and I had met him. Jeff didn’t get picked. He was one of the three finalists: Conrad Stevens, Jeff Marsh, Paul Airey, and they picked Airey. I had never heard of him.
In October, six months later, the Korat sergeant major called us base chiefs in and said, “Chief Airey’s coming to visit. There will be a cocktail party for the chiefs only at the club at 5 o’clock.” There were only 16 of us chiefs. We were instructed to step forward, shake his hand, tell him where we work, and get out of the way. We went to the club, and here he was with a wreath chevron. When it was my turn, I said, “Chief Gaylor, security superintendent, nice to meet you, Chief.” I thought, “He talks to God.” I was awestruck.
I’ve often thought if you had sidled up to me then and said, “Hey, Bob, you think someday you would be in that position?” “Yeah, as soon as I get back from the moon.” I never, never, never thought that 10 years later I would put on that wreath chevron.
That’s a great story because an Airman today, sitting there with two stripes, may be CMSAF [Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force] #28. They don’t know that. You just have to do your job every day. You can’t screw off and then say, okay, now I’ve decided I want to be chief of the Air Force. Every day, every day, every day, every day. Attitude, aptitude, head on straight, team player. There is no magic formula. It is a simple process.
The things that helped me the most was being an MTI and an academy instructor. Had I been a cop, my scope would have been limited to that field. I encourage everyone to be a recruiter, a first sergeant, an MTI, an MTL [military training leader], an academy instructor. It broadens your scope. It lets you see how the rest of the Air Force operates. Had I only been a cop I would not have had any idea what they do in PMEL [precision measurement equipment laboratory] or fuels or biophysics. If I was CMSAF today, I’d probably make special duty mandatory.
I’d probably say between your 10th and 20th year of service you will serve as a recruiter, first sergeant, something, because although people may drag their feet and go begrudgingly, it would help them. If they close their minds and say, “I don’t want to do it,” I’d probably say, “Well, you have made your choice. This is your future; you’ll probably retire as a tech or master.” I think you owe it to yourself. I never said no to any opportunity.
I’d like to talk about the two top ranks, when we created the senior and chief ranks—
When I made master sergeant that was the end of the line. I made master on April 1, 1956. I was 25 years old. The wing had been given a quota of one, and I met a board with five other guys. A week later I was told I made it, and I sewed it on immediately. I thought that was the end of the line. That’s it. There’s no further promotion.
In 1958, at Lackland I decided to apply to be a warrant officer. I didn’t like the title, Mr. Gaylor, because it sounded civilian-ish, but I thought I owed it to myself. I applied and I filled out the form—and I didn’t tell anybody except my family. I was thinking any day I would be selected, then I get a letter back saying, “Your application is returned without action. We are coming out with two new ranks that will soon be announced. Therefore, we are not selecting any new warrant officers.”
I said, “There are two new ranks coming out.” Guys asked, “What have you been drinking?” [Laughter] It hadn’t been announced. I sort of had the preemptive information. And sure enough, in ’58, they announced senior and chief. I knew I didn’t have a shot. I was 27 years old, and there were World War II guys hanging around. I didn’t even think of making senior, and I didn’t.
A year later, to get chief going, they promoted something like 626 chiefs with a year in grade. They were called charter chiefs. and they put on the rank. I thought my career had just been boosted; I have two ranks to go. In ’63, with seven years in grade as a master, I made senior master sergeant. And in ’67, I made chief. So that was a boon to me because it opened some new ranks. Otherwise, I would have peaked as a master, and I may have run out of gas at about 14 years of service and coasted. But it gave me aspiration to go for those two ranks, and I achieved them.
I left Korat, Thailand, on January 10, 1968 with orders for Grand Forks, North Dakota. I flew back to Shreveport to get my family, and headed for Grand Forks. I had no problem with that; I was back to being a cop. I was a chief. I knew I would be the group superintendent of the cops. I got home to Shreveport, and Kenny [Gaylor’s son] was nine years old, and he showed me a coat he got for Christmas. I said “You’re going to need that where we’re going.” He looked at his mother, and she said, “Your father doesn’t know yet.” “What is it I don’t know?” She said, “We’re not going to Grand Forks. SAC headquarters called yesterday. They’re reopening the SAC Academy at Barksdale. You’re going to be the first instructor.”
Wow. From being an academy instructor to closure, going back to the cops, to Thailand, and then on to Grand Forks—and Jim McCoy was in personnel at SAC—he engineered my diversion. I owe that to Jim. You talk about timing. Had I come back a week earlier, I would have gone to Grand Forks, and you’d never hear about Gaylor. Had I come back a week later, I might have gone to Grand Forks; it’s timing. While I was on the way home, they diverted me to Barksdale. I didn’t even know it. My family knew it before I did.
Were you excited about that opportunity?
I was beside myself. We decided to open the academy in July of ’68. There were SAC academies at March [AFB, California], Westover, and Barksdale. We brought those three into one, and we used lesson plans from those academies. We selected a faculty of 22 by looking at packages. The first women came through in the summer of ’69. The first tech sergeant instructor didn’t happen until ’72. The first black instructor happened in ’73. We weren’t biased; it just happened that way. We didn’t say we can’t pick that person because they’re African-American; we just didn’t. I’m not sure we even had any packages. It wasn’t a blatant discrimination; it was just a happening. I look back now, it was inappropriate, but we were not at the point of quotas—like we have to have two of these, three of these. As a matter of fact, the first black person we added was a black female, TSgt Dale Armwood; she’s retired in San Antonio. I see her every once in a while.
It was 1970, and I was loving my Air Force life. The commandant, a lieutenant colonel, notified me that a three-star general wanted to interview me. I asked, “For what?” “He’s creating a new position, Second Air Force sergeant major, an enlisted person on his staff. He’s never had one, and he’s heard about you and your background.” So, I went for an interview. I had never talked to a three-star general. We talked 45 minutes about my views on leadership. He said, “The top enlisted ranks are not leading as they should. They’re not doing their job. I want to bolster that. You have a background in leadership. You have a reputation.” And he hired me.
People asked, “Hey, Bob, what are you?” “I’m sergeant major.” “What do you do?” “I have no idea. I just sergeant major around.” I had mixed emotions. I didn’t want to leave the academy, but it was exciting to work for a three-star general. I started out, and I had no idea what to do—no guideline, no job description. It was a great title. I got introduced at luncheons. “But what do you do?” “I’m not sure.”
Gen. [David C.] Jones wanted me to talk about NCO leadership, so I put together a two- or three-hour talk. I called an Air Force base, “Ok, here I come.” An NCO on the phone said, “For what?” “I want to talk to Airmen.” “Well, we’re pretty busy.” I said, “Here I come.” And I went.
I got up there, and there were 18 Airmen assembled. I just talked to them. I mean, I was flying by the seat of my pants. I had no idea what I was doing. I started off on a shoestring, and with my boisterousness, I developed a reputation.
Was it a challenging time—I know Chief Airey and the first chiefs had challenges creating these positions across the Air Force.
Airey was the right choice to be the first. After I met him that first time for one minute, there wasn’t much publicity. You didn’t hear much. Airey’s Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force? What does he do? He apparently goes to dinners and gets introduced. CMSAF #2 [Donald L.] Harlow came to the academy in ’69. I played golf with him. I have the scorecard in my lockbox. I beat him. I had an 87, he had a 92.
I was riding high in Second Air Force at Barksdale—17 command bases, and I was traveling out to them. In 1971 General Jones got picked for a fourth star and went to Europe to be the USAFE [US Air Forces in Europe] commander. He called me and said, “Do you want to go to Germany?” I said, “I’ve never been.” He said, “Let me go on over and see what we got, and I’ll summon you.” I didn’t tell anybody because it was just him saying that to me.
He left in February, and in May I got a call from Pete Todd, Jones’s aide. He said, “He’s ready to move you.” “Well, when does he want me there?” He said, “Next week.” “Next week? I got four kids. I can be there mid-summer.” Then I got word from the personnel center, “You’re not going to Germany. That four-star can’t buck the system. What does he think, all he has to do is say he wants somebody and gets them? You’re a cop, Gaylor. They’re over in cops in Europe. You’re not going.” I said, “Hey, you work that out with the four-star. Now don’t get me in the middle. You deal with him.”
In three days another guy called and said, “You’re going to Europe.” So in July ’71, the Gaylors went to Europe.
Flip Horn was the USAFE senior enlisted leader. Immediately people believed I was replacing Flip Horn. I knew I wasn’t. That’s not why Jones brought me over there. On the third day I was there, I went to see him. He said, “Here’s what I have in mind. Don’t even say the word academy. We don’t have the money. What I envision is a leadership center. Maybe four instructors and one admin guy. I’ve got a building I can give you, I think the classroom seats 36 people. I envision a two-week course—no drill, no volleyball. I want you to focus on effective speaking, equal opportunity, and leadership management.”
We opened the USAFE Command Management Center. We gave quotas out to USAFE bases, and within six months they were beating down the door to get in. I had a sergeant from Bitburg [AB, Germany] say, “I’ll take leave if you’ll give me a seat in the classroom.” People found their PFE [promotion fitness exam] score was going up 40 points. We weren’t teaching the test, we were teaching leadership and management, effective communication and equal opportunity. Man, we gassed them—36 NCOs every two weeks.
I arranged to keep three instructors at home and one would travel to a USAFE base. Everybody wanted us. In 1973 General Jones announced we were moving USAFE Headquarters from Weisbaden [AB, Germany] to Ramstein [AB, Germany]. And in the summer of ’73, I became the USAFE senior enlisted advisor—the first one at Ramstein.
How long did you serve there?
In May of ’74 Gen. Jones was selected to be Chief of Staff of the Air Force. After he left, I was a lame duck. I kept doing what I was doing, but without any senior command support. In August of ’74, three months after he left, I got a call from Pentagon personnel saying Gen. Jones was ready to move me. I said, “Where does he want me?” “Well, let me tell you first what he wants you to do. He wants you to travel all over the Air Force talking about leadership. And he doesn’t care where you do it, Pentagon, Maxwell [AFB, Alabama], Randolph [AFB, Texas]. He said to tell you that you pick.” I chose Randolph.
My family and I arrived at Randolph in August ’74. I was given blanket travel orders valid for a year at a time that I could travel anywhere in the Air Force world to talk leadership. That was my only guideline.
Was it just as successful as the course in Europe?
I put together a leadership talk and I developed a handout. All I did was show up at the base theater and, “Here’s Chief Gaylor.” “Who is this guy?” “I don’t know, but he left this handout.” Like the Lone Ranger, I left a silver bullet.
I flew all over the Pacific giving my talk on leadership. It started out at about 45 minutes. By the time I gave a dozen talks, it became a two-hour talk. No break. I had a line of requests waiting. I hit the ground running. I did 265 travel days in 1975. I was talking leadership in base theaters, spending three days at a base, six talks, two talks a day, frequently without a microphone. That’s why I still talk so loud, because I had to.
My first of six talks I’d have an audience of maybe 22, and then I’d have 64. By my sixth talk, I’d have standing room only because it was a good talk. It was on styles of leadership and adapting your style to the situation. In fact, the strength of your style is your potential weakness. That’s a true fact most people never think of. If you’re a take-charge autocratic-type leader, getting things done, you’re probably at times too damn bossy.
And if you’re a people-oriented, friendly, caring guy, people will step all over you. So you got to learn to cut it off at the pass. You got to know when your strength is becoming your weakness.
How did you end up being selected as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force?
In July of ’77 I received a message along with four other chiefs, “Report to the Pentagon to meet a board.” On July 7th we assembled on the fourth floor of the Pentagon. The five chiefs looked at each other. It appeared one of us was going to be [CMSAF Thomas N.] Barnes’s replacement. A lieutenant colonel briefed us, “There’s a board down the hall, a four-star and two three-star generals, and you’ll meet alphabetically—30 minutes each.” We stood there, not wanting to sit down and wrinkle our trousers. I was excited, butterflies, etc.
Great questions: “What are the issues we’re facing today? What would you do if you were the next chief?” I enjoyed it. I wanted more because I had traveled the Air Force and I knew the pulse. They told me I could leave. I stood up to shake their hands, and I said to a three-star, “Thank you, Colonel Mathis.” I called him colonel. I called a three-star general a colonel. I said, “Isn’t that great? I come all the way from San Antonio. I shined my shoes, I bought new ribbons, I got a haircut. I thought I did fairly well with the board, and I screw it up just trying to get out of the room. May I start over?” Sure enough.
I left the Pentagon about four in the afternoon. I got in my car, and we headed back to San Antonio. I was driving back and stopping, giving talks en route at bases, and on 17 July I got a call from the Gen. [Bennie L.] Davis, “Thought you might like to be the first to know you’ve been selected.” Wow! Matter of fact, I had just gotten out of the shower. I had a towel around my body. Wow! He said, “The word will go out tomorrow to the Air Force.” Wow!
We drove into Washington on the 29th of July. On the 31st I was in the chief of staff’s office for the ceremony.
Looking back, do you feel you accomplished what you set out to then?
You know, I realize I wasn’t the greatest “Pentagon Chief.” I went to Spangdahlem [AFB], Germany, on a Europe trip and [future CMSAF Sam E.] Parish was the USAFE senior enlisted leader. He told me that 17 Airmen wanted to meet with me at Spangdahlem Air Base. “About what?” I asked. He said, “I have no idea. They’ve asked for an audience.” Well, I never said no; so we set it up.
I went to the recreation center that evening, and there were 17 Airmen, 17 spouses, and crying babies. “Who are you?” They said, “We’re unsponsored Airmen.” “What do you mean unsponsored?” “Our dependents were not funded.” “Well, then how did they get here?” “Well, her dad paid.” “Why are you unfunded?” “Well, because Air Force policy does not permit family travel for E-4 and below.” I thought, “That doesn’t seem right. If the colonel gets to bring his family, why doesn’t the young Airman?”
I came back to the Pentagon, and knew we needed to fix this issue. A colonel said, “That’s Air Force policy.” I said, “Sir, that’s the worst thing you could have said to me . . . that’s Air Force policy.” He asked, “What are you saying?” I said, “Maybe we need to change Air Force policy.”
Senator [John W.] Warner from Virginia had run into the same thing with Sailors at Norfolk [Naval Shipyard, Virginia] and thought it was about time we changed it. I went over to Capitol Hill and testified with a committee. Well, Congress changed that. I was given credit, but it wasn’t me. I didn’t change it; the Air Force did. I’m not one that says I did this during my tenure, but I do say we obtained travel for Airmen of all ranks and their dependents, and we opened 70 leadership schools.
Gen. Jones seems to have focused on leadership education, and I guess it was very necessary at the time. Why do you think that was?
I think we just hadn’t gotten there educationally. I think, for one thing, we had way too many levels of leadership. I would go out on a SAC flight line at Carswell [AFB, Fort Worth, Texas] and there was a colonel, the director of maintenance, then a lieutenant colonel or major, then a captain or a lieutenant, then the chief or a senior master sergeant, then a master sergeant or a tech sergeant, and then a staff sergeant out there actually changing the tires. We needed to take about five of those levels out of there. We could get by with a colonel, a captain, a chief or a senior master sergeant, and a staff sergeant.
There is something to be said for a planned reduction of the force. Sometimes it’s healthy; you get all those levels out of there. That’s what we did. We had 465,000, and we reduced about 100,000. With the aid of technology, we could do stuff quicker, throw away the tech order, and give them a system they could look into. We could get a lot more done. I mean, majors were telling chiefs, “Stay out of my area. You made a decision, it wasn’t yours to make.” The chief says, “Okay, I’ll just drive around in my flight line truck all day.” We just had to get rid of some levels and clarify authority.
We had a lot of bases that wanted leadership schools. We said “All right, you can have a leadership school, but it has to be in-residence. The students must live in a leadership dorm.” The bases were really cramped, three to a room, and they said they couldn’t spare additional rooms. So, the policy was they couldn’t have a leadership school. Well, that didn’t make sense. So we changed it to where if you had a dorm, okay, but you didn’t have to have a dorm. If the students lived at home, that was okay, too. It was more important to have a school.
Along the way we made modifications that appeared to be sensible. Instead of saying, “If you don’t meet this provision you can’t do this,” we said, “We’ll change the provision to where you can do it.” We did a lot of sensible things. Instead of saying, “Ah, you were caught on drugs, you’re out of the Air Force,” we said, “Let’s open some medical procedures where you can be treated. We’re not going to dump our drug users back onto society; we’re going to try our best to rehabilitate them unless they’re not able to rehabilitate.” So, we did some very commonsense things along the way.
Gen. Jones’s philosophy, and some people never learn this, was that you can’t change procedures by sending out a letter or an e-mail. If that was true we’d send out a letter saying to treat everybody nice. He knew you have to educate, and education takes time. If you send out a letter you might change some behavior overnight, but if you’re going to change it in the long run, you’ve got to educate. Leadership schools, NCO Academies, Air Command and Staff School, Squadron Officer School, there are no substitutes. If you want me to fly an airplane, you’d better train me. You don’t just put me in a cockpit and say, “See if you can take this thing off.”
You seemed to have led the Air Force through a lot of change. What did you learn about leading through change?
I have studied change quite extensively, and I learned that the powers to be that initiate the change are obligated to ensure that it will, in fact, make things better. This is before the masses even know about it. These are the thinkers in the Pentagon. They’re obligated to evaluate, measure, and weigh it to make sure.
Next thing, announce it, market it, sell it, and answer the why. In the old days, the powers to be back in the ’40s used to say, “All leaves are canceled until morale improves. You will improve your morale by order of the commander.” You can’t do that anymore. Americans are too sophisticated. They want to know why. So, we have to market, we have to sell. We have to convince as many of the masses as possible. That’s called education. Here’s why we’re doing it, and here’s what we expect from the modification or the change.
Then I suggest the recipients of the change have to say, “I’m behind it. I’m for it. I’m not going to fight it.” Then you celebrate the change. You literally celebrate it.
When we sold our old house, I stopped at the end of the driveway as we backed out for the last time and shut off the car. My wife said, “Why are you shutting off the car?” I said, “We will never walk in this house again. Let’s remember the Christmases and the good memories and the families and the neighbors. Let’s just sit here for a few minutes and remember such and such.” We both thought that was great. It was a great house. “Okay. Now let’s agree that we will never in our new home say, I liked my other house better. My other pantry was bigger.” What’s to be gained by that? You celebrate change. We’re in a new house. It’s going to be great.
Sometimes I say, “If you’re on your second marriage you may not want to say to your spouse, ‘Well my previous spouse...’ You may not want to go there because the odds are you’ll get in trouble.” So you celebrate change.
You were talking about leadership and leadership education. There was a point in your career where the senior enlisted force transitioned from a technical mind-set to a leadership mind-set. When was that, and what brought about that change?
I think it was in education. You know, I never went to leadership school. I never went to an academy until I was a senior. I was never given that benefit.
Everything starts with a theoretical framework. People say, “I don’t like theory.” You’ve got to start with theory. If you don’t start with theory, where do you start? [American psychologist] Frederick Herzberg theorized that it’s not the environment in which an Airman is motivated. It’s about what they do and the feelings they get from the job. That’s a theory, but where else would you start?
Autocratic leadership won World War II. George Patton is a prime example. After World War II, when there wasn’t supposed to be any more war, professors like Maslow and Herzberg said that you don’t have to yell at people to get them to work. You can provide a work environment that makes them receptive to work. People went, “No, you have to yell at them and you have to tell them what to do.” And they said no. So, we began to listen to some of these so-called experts. We may not have agreed with everything they said, but they left a thought behind, a starting point.
For example, an author wrote a book in 1970 titled I’m Okay, You’re Okay. What in heaven’s name is that? There are some different thoughts; I’m okay, you’re not. You’re okay, I’m not. Neither one of us are okay, or I’m okay, you’re okay. So I read that and thought, “Well yeah, I’m okay, but so is he. It’s not I’m okay and he’s not. We’re all okay.”
So every one of those theoretical frameworks left something behind we could inculcate into our own style. You are a product of supervisors you had, who had supervisors they had. We’re all a transition. You don’t go from Gen. Patton to Mark Welsh. There’s a series of people in between that influence somebody who influences somebody who influenced. Now you got Mark Welsh, who is a great manager and a great leader and a great human being and a great father. You might say, “Where did he come from?” Well, George Patton would have probably drummed him out of the Corps, you know. “You don’t yell. You’re not profane.” Well, we found out you don’t have to be. All that’s education.
That’s why I’m a PME supporter. You don’t tell people how to lead, you plant seeds that help them put together how they lead.
One of your other strengths is your ability to communicate. Here you are, in your mid-eighties and you’re still connecting with younger Airmen today because you’re a good communicator. What is your secret?
I am convinced at the age of 85 that God put me on Earth to talk. I cannot raise the hood of a car. I have trouble driving a nail. There are just so many things I cannot do, but I can talk. When I was four years old I sang at a grocery store opening “Where Have You Been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy,” and won a big box of cookies. In high school I was not a good basketball player, but when someone had to get up in the auditorium to announce the upcoming game, they’d shove me up front. So, I’ve never met a microphone I didn’t like. I can talk. I pay people to raise the hood of the car and drive the nail. It took me a while to learn that. I tried to raise the hood of the car, and I screwed things up—and it cost me double. I talk.
I think the message is that each person is pinged with a talent. I’ve seen six-year-olds sit and play the piano. I go, wow. Where did they get that skill? I watch a guy repair a transmission with little parts, and I go, wow. I think I’ve always had the ability to communicate. I’ve never had a problem with that. I had to learn things I didn’t do very well. Could I learn to drive a nail? Sure. Why don’t I? I’m not interested. I’m too busy talking.
I said to a guy, “I just paid $1,000 to have my trees trimmed.” He said, “You can’t trim a tree?” I said, “No. I would probably saw my arm off. I paid $800 to have my sprinkler system adjusted.” He said, “You can’t adjust it?” “No, but I’ll tell you what I can do. I can go to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. I can give a talk. They write me a check for $2,400. I come back and pay the tree trimmer and the sprinkler adjuster, and the world is happy.”
Two more questions for you. First, if you could think back to the Airmen you served with when you came into the Air Force and then compare them to the Airmen that serve today, what do you think would be the biggest difference?
I think the biggest change obviously is technology, no question about it, and that is wide-ranging. As they were educated in middle school and high school, they had computers, calculators, a variety of devices that helped them learn. They brought that talent with them. You give them a new piece of equipment, then moments later they’re somewhat skilled with it. I believe technology has opened the field.
It’s like what I said earlier about your strength becoming your weakness. If your life is all technology, you lose the ability to interact with others. You can’t sit and enjoy a beer—you’re too busy on a device. I see it in restaurants. They invite a girl for a date, and they both sit there looking at a device—and that’s terrible.
My daughter interviewed potential employees. She said, “Dad, 50 percent don’t know how to interview. They don’t know how to sit and carry on a conversation.” So it’s a case of overextending. The Greeks of thousands of years ago said the key to a happy life is balance. Work, play, family, work. The moment you get out of balance, you’re tilting. People that embrace technology 100 percent and rely on Facebooking with somebody in New Hampshire instead of people within their immediate community don’t know what they’re missing.
A belief and a truism is that what you grow up without becomes very important to you later in life. People in my age bracket, what’s important now are cruise ships—because we never did it—and jewelry. I bought my wife a ring when she was 80, she never had one. Now if you go on a cruise ship and have a big diamond when you’re 24, what are you going to do for an encore? So, you say I’ll probably go to Africa and work with the impoverished, because you’ve never tasted that. That’s what people are doing now. As they get older, they’re looking for something they’ve never had before. We never think of that. We just sort of migrate. What you grow up without becomes very important to you later in life. I grew up during the Depression and World War II, and now I got to have a Mustang—a ’66 Mustang—a new Hyundai. I go on fancy cruises because I never did that.
Well, that’s it chief. Thank you again for doing this...
I couldn’t wait for today. I thank all of you. It must be close to 11 o’clock.
Well, it’s almost 1:00.
As I was saying, I’m either blessed or cursed with a lot of information. My prayer to the good Lord nightly is that there are still people I want to talk to and share my experiences, so give me a little more time and then give me the courage to know when my time is up and handle it appropriately. That’s all I want. When Airmen write me a note, an e-mail out of the clear blue, and say you made me think, I go, wow. That’s the money in the bank. I wouldn’t take a million bucks for that, to think that maybe I helped somebody. Because so many people helped me.
I realize you can’t tell somebody how to behave. You just sort of hope to say something that they remember. I’m notoriously famous for things like “Hot Fries” and “put your name on the mailbox.” Those are Bob Gaylor’s stories. And I dice radishes. They’re just stories I tell.
People ask me, “Did that really happen?” I say, “I don’t know. I’ve told the story so much I think it did.” And then I’d say, “Did you like the story?” And they say, yeah. “Well then it doesn’t matter whether it’s happened or not if you like the story.” [Laughter]