'59ers Revel, Renew Friendships, Share Stories

By Ann Patton, Academy Spirit staff

Class of 1959The Class of 1959 eagerly awaits the unveiling of the Harmon Memorial Statue Dedication.

When then Secretary of the Air Force James Douglas addressed the Academy graduating Class of 1959, he applauded the advances in science and technology the new graduates would enjoy in the future.

It was the last time the class came together as a whole.

A half century later, well more than three-fourths of the 157 surviving members of the Class of 1959 returned to the Academy for their 50th reunion April 13 through15 to visit with cadets, renew old friendships and, well, party.

"It went wonderfully," said event organizer retired Lt. Col. Jim Brown. "We had a great time, and the class was pleased as they could be."

Retired Maj. Gen. Pete Todd said it was the best reunion the class had ever had.

"It was a happening," he quipped.

Also attending were 33 Air Training Officers who served in upperclassmen roles for the first classes.

The Falcon Heritage Forum, entitled "The Class of 1959: Fifty Years of Excellence," preceded and dovetailed with the reunion, allowing '59ers to meet and share experiences with cadets.

Class members, spouses and other guests enjoyed receptions and small get-togethers, meals with cadets and a dance.

"Talk about cutting the rug," Mr. Brown, the reunion's self-proclaimed "head cat herder" said. "I had to throw them out at 1:30 in the morning."

As predicted, heavy, wet snow pummeled the Front Range that weekend, leaving nearly a foot of the white stuff in some areas and moving one of the highlights of the reunion into Arnold Hall-dedication of the Harmon Memorial, dedicated to the Academy's first superintendent Lt. Gen. Hubert Reilly Harmon. Under blowing snow, hardier class members attended the unveiling outside.

For well over two years, members of the Class of 1959 had imagined, planned and financed the memorial which is next to the Cadet Chapel. With its walkways, benches and native landscaping, the memorial features a sculpture of General Harmon as its centerpiece and depicts him as a scholar, leader and teacher.

Kendrick Harmon  
Kendrick Harmon, son of Gen. Hubert Harmon, speaks to the class of 1959.  

Involved with the memorials planning also was General Harmon's son, Kendrick, a '59 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.

"He was a loving and very caring father. This sculpture refreshes my memory of him," he said during the dedication. "He would be overwhelmed by the affection bestowed upon him."

Mr. Harmon said his father envisioned the Air Force Academy having a stronger emphasis in liberal arts and the humanities than other service academies at the time.

"He would be thrilled," the son said of the Academy's current curriculum.

The Air Force was only eight years old when its Academy opened.

The first class entered July 11, 1955 and was housed in the beginning at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colo. When its permanent home opened for the first time, cadets marched from the gate on Northgate Blvd. to the Terrazzo, signifying occupation of the permanent site.

At the last Class of 1959 reunion romance met military when retired Col. Jay Mitchell, now living in Albuquerque, N.M., married his wife Barbara. The couple chose the date so classmates could attend.

He recalled his days at the Academy and its lessons of integrity, for which he had on occasion paid a high price.

"It has always been a guiding force in my life," the now-master cabinet maker said. "I don't even have to think about it now."

Retired Col. Wayne Pittman, Dayton, Ohio, has missed only two reunions since graduating. He attended the latest with his wife Karen, whom he met on a blind date while a cadet.

"I get to see people I don't see except at reunions," he said. "We go back a long way."

Mrs. Pittman reflected on the years her husband was on active duty.

"I ironed a lot of blue shirts," she reflected.

Brig. Gen. Al Gagliardi shared his cadet days with present cadets during the Forum, remembering studying under the covers with a flashlight, the $23 a month pay and how cadets frequently relied on dates to pay for evenings out.

He also recalled marching to all meals.

"Everything was oriented toward discipline," he said.

Retired Col. Max Miller settled permanently in Colorado Springs.

"I've never cut the umbilical cord," he said with a smile.

Harmon Memorial The Class of 1959 unveils the Harmon Memorial Statue Dedication.

The former Vietnam era combat pilot related that in some areas Academy life is more difficult and in others easier but in the important ways it has stayed the same.

"The Academy is still a very good institution and the best in the country," he boasted.

Roshi Wiley Birch traveled from Massachusetts to attend the reunion. For the last 30 years he has served as a Buddhist monk. The highlight for him was meeting and chatting with cadets.

"I am always blown away by them," he said. "It's hard to believe we were like that."

He and Mr. Miller told cadets spirit missions are nothing new but for the Class of 1959 they were pretty much ad hoc. They recalled moving an F-100 from the airfield to a superior officer's front door, blocking it.

Retired Lt. Col. Bill Gold from Spokane, Wash., enjoyed meeting with old friends.

"They may have changed but not me," he joked.

Mr. Gold also enjoyed seeing how cadets are progressing and interacting with them.

"I'm confident the world will be a whole lot better with them out there."

The class reunion was also a family reunion for Marty Lofton, Jr. and his daughter Cadet 2nd Class Elizabeth Lofton. It was his first class reunion to attend.

The choice to come to the Academy fell on his daughter.

"It was her decision," he said. "You have to want to do it or not."

When asked if her father had rendered some advice before entering, Cadet Lofton replied quickly, "I wish he had."

Cadet 1st Class Robbie Glenn, Cadet Squadron 9, enjoyed interacting with the '59ers. While other service academies have centuries of history, the Air Force Academy is relatively new.

"It is important we get in touch with our heritage," he said.

Cadet 1st Class  Maverick Lewis, CS-4, said he especially enjoyed talking with Mr. Gagliardi who held command posts at Laughlin, AFB, Texas.

"It was great to pick his brain at the commander level," he said.

General Todd said the class is presenting an engraved set of second lieutenant's bars to each member of the Class of 2009.

"It's a link across a half century," he said. "This will close the loop, and the cadets seemed really jazzed about that."