ENID, Okla. —
There have been many commanders at Vance Air Force Base since the facility first opened in 1941.
Maj. Henry W. Dorr was the first base commander, while the first wing commander was Col. Edwin W. Day.
Until October 1991, the positions of base and wing commander were separate. The first wing commander to also serve as base commander was Col. Donald F. “Crusher” Craigie.
Col. Darren V. James, the current 71st Flying Training Wing boss, is No. 35 in the long line of wing commanders stretching back to 1948.
Commanders come and go, changing on the average of about every 18 months or so, give or take a couple.
All, in their own way, leave their mark on the wing, the base and the community. But some leave a deeper, much more long-lasting impression.
One such commander was A.J. Stewart.
Maj. Gen. Alfred J. Stewart died Sunday, taken far too young at the age of 55, a victim of brain cancer.
From April 19, 2002, until Aug. 29, 2003, Stewart served as wing commander at Vance.
I first encountered Stewart on a warm mid-June morning in 2002. He walked into a briefing room filled with brand new pilot training candidates, a couple dozen young men getting ready to begin their year-long journey in quest of pilot’s wings.
They all wore their dress uniforms, crisp blue for the Air Force pilots, bright white for the Navy and green and khaki service uniforms for the Marines.
Stewart was dressed in his everyday garb, a green flight suit, but he struck an impressive figure nonetheless.
He welcomed the young officers to pilot training, complimented them on how nice they looked in their uniforms. Then he told them to hang those uniforms carefully in the backs of their closets, because they wouldn’t need them until graduation, more than a year away.
“We are about building warriors,” he said that day. “This is not a flying club. We will challenge you. We produce American heroes.”
The young men all listened attentively, as did a couple of visitors in the back of the room.
“We do not grade on a curve,” he warned the young men. “There is one absolute standard, and that should be excellence.”
I don’t know about those young officers, but by the time Stewart had finished, this aging reporter was ready to sign up.
Mike Cooper, then Enid’s mayor and now the city’s military liaison, remembers well the April day when Stewart took command at Vance, and held a hangar full of airmen and visitors in his sway.
“He absolutely had to be one of the most motivational and inspirational speakers I ever heard,” said Cooper. “He made you want to be the best you could be.”
After leaving Vance, Stewart moved up the Air Force ladder, serving in a couple of posts in Germany, then coming back to the states, where he became commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service and the Air Force Personnel Center.
In February 2007, Stewart returned to Vance to speak at a graduation ceremony, as well as to address the base’s annual African-American Heritage Luncheon.
He said his best memories of Vance were of the 18 graduations over which he presided while serving as commander.
“One of my most enjoyable assignments was to be here as wing commander and to mold, shape, influence and mentor these young people as they have volunteered to serve,” said Stewart. “I do miss that.”
Molding, shaping, influencing and mentoring, those were Stewart’s strengths.
“Personally I think we are all here for a reason,” said Cooper. “His last job was over Air Force personnel, all those young people. What a perfect guy to have touching people coming into the Air Force initially. He gave them a lot of the values and tools they needed to succeed.”
In his speech during the luncheon, Stewart challenged his fellow African-Americans.
“We need to raise our standards and return to the values of our parents and grandparents — faith, family, moms and dads, education, character, excellence, perseverance, yes, patriotism, and other values that are apparently not so valuable to us today as black people,” he said. “We must challenge each other and stop looking for government solutions for our community problems.”
In March of 2012, Stewart wrote a column for the Air Force Personnel Center website, in which he recounted the day he learned he had a brain tumor.
As usual, his assessment was honest and unflinching. He didn’t wallow in self-pity, but instead challenged his readers to be positive, to be open, to be resilient, to be appreciative and to be loving.
“I’ve cleared a few hurdles but the fight is still on,” he concluded. “I intend to win.”
And so he did. Oh, he didn’t beat the cancer that claimed his life, but he rose above it, he inspired, he encouraged, he made all who knew him want to be the best they could be.
What a legacy. He will be missed.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.