History in the making
The history of flight is often written in dramatic leaps of progress – written by historic figures such as the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, the WWII Tuskegee airmen, Chuck Yeager, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.
And sometimes the history of flight is written by the less famous, in Midwest “flyover land,” below the radar of history – but a part of it nonetheless. Sometimes that history is even recorded on old, wooden storage room doors transformed into a mural mounted on an Air Force ROTC Detachment 410 wall at the University of St. Thomas – a mural that brings Air Force aviation history to life.
Second Lieutenant William Mack ’12 made history April 10, 2013, when he signed his name on that mural, joining luminaries such as Tuskegee Airmen Capt. Stan Harris, Maj. Joe Gomer and Col. Kenneth Wofford, and Don O’Hearn, a B-17 tail gunner who shot down a German Messerschmitt ME 262 (the world's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft) on, ironically, April 10, 1945, and former St. Thomas AFROTC cadets turned pilots who returned to campus to visit the detachment. Many of those who have signed their names have been guest speakers at the detachment’s annual Veterans Day POW-MIA Vigil.
The wall originally served as storage room doors when the detachment was headquartered in the bowels of Foley Hall, which also was home to St. Thomas’ Theater Department at the time. When Foley Hall was razed to make way for the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex, the detachment moved to Loras Hall, and the walls were placed in storage.
“We didn’t know if there would be a place to use them, but we thought, well, let’s keep them and if there’s not we’ll pitch them then,” said Cynthia Horsmann, AFROTC office coordinator since 2006. “The corridor between the cadet lounge and the briefing room/classroom turned out to be the perfect place.”
Installed on a wall in an interior hallway in the remodeled Murray-Herrick Campus Center, the mural stands 7-feet, 4-inches tall and measures 34-feet wide. On its painted gray surface are Air Force planes in flight, organized by era, clouds, and numerous signatures.
“We just wanted to put it in a place where everybody could see it when they walked down that hallway. It’s kind of like a hall of remembrance,” remarked Lt. Col. Thomas Zupancich, an A-10 pilot who is the detachment commander and chair of the Aerospace Studies Department. “And so when we put it up there, it enabled everybody to take a look at it and go ‘Wow’ and have some reflection as they walk by and see all those great names.”
Mack, 22, a native of Colorado Springs, Colo., was back on campus assisting the detachment after completing the Air Force's six-week Introductory Flight Training course. He started pilot training April 24 at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. He first saw the wall as a freshman in fall 2008.
“I didn’t know all the history behind it that I know now, but I thought it was pretty cool,” Mack said. “It was in a really small, cramped room that had all of our uniforms, and I was back there lacing up my first pair of combat boots when I saw it. I thought it was pretty cool. I was excited that I was going to be in a detachment that cared about its history.”
The mural was the idea of St. Thomas seniors Tim Weber and Mark Laine. In 1996, two AFROTC cadets, sophomore Tony Kuczynski and freshman Mike Lamey, painted the mural and signed their names in the lower-right corner.
“What happened was, after they painted the wall, when we’d have guest speakers and other guests come in, we’d have them come down and sign the wall,” explained Maj. Gregory Voth ’00, commandant of cadets. “If they were air crew or somehow related to a particular aircraft usually they would sign their names by that plane and what years they flew.”
Voth, 35, a native of Winona, Minn., majored in physics and, like all AFROTC cadets at St. Thomas, has an aerospace studies minor. He served in Texas, Okinawa, Utah, Ohio (where he earned a master’s degree) and Florida before returning home to Minnesota.
Coming back to campus is “incredibly rewarding,” Voth remarked. “It’s fun to come back and be a part of the detachment on the cadre side of it. Actually, it’s where I got my start in the Air Force. It’s my college experience, so it’s a lot of fun to come back home. It’s incredibly rewarding to be on the side of helping train and mold the cadets – a great bunch of students to work with, just so motivated. Really makes it incredibly enjoyable.”
To have Mack on campus is “outstanding,” he added. “We’ve had a number of our recently graduated lieutenants come back to assist around the program for a couple of weeks. Probably one of the best things as a brand new lieutenant, he’s just gone through that process of transitioning from an AFROTC graduate on to active duty, getting settled in at a new base. Probably one of the most valuable things that our returning lieutenants do is interact with the cadets and share – ‘OK, here’s how it goes. Here’s what to expect.’”
Mack dreamed of being a pilot since he was young. Living 10 minutes from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, he was able to watch the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s precision flying team, each May as it performed at graduation.
He played hockey in high school and was looking for a college that had both a Division 3 hockey program and an Air Force ROTC unit. “I found St. Thomas,” he remarked. “I came here and fell in love with it instantly and never looked back.”
He enjoyed his recent time back on campus as an officer. “It’s cool to come back and see the program from the outside,” he said. “It’s really cool to come back and see the cadets and see four years of them and see their different development levels and how they’ve come along and how they’re interacting with each other, and how they’re preparing for active duty.”
And he was ready to make history, adding his name to the mural.
“When I was a wide-eyed freshman and heard that pilots come back and sign the wall, I thought I’d like to write my name on it someday,” he said. “So here we are.”
Call it a Victory Roll (of sorts) as that someday came April 10. With a steady hand Mack calmly pulled a pen from his green flight suit and near a fighter jet signed his name – William Mack '12 – and made history.
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Editor’s note: Images, from top to bottom: 1) University of St. Thomas AFROTC Detachment 410 shield, with four stars in the purple area, and 10 stars in the gray area. 2) U.S. Army Air Corps roundel, WWI era. 3) U.S. Army Air Corps roundel, post-WWI to early WWII era. 4) U.S. Army Air Corps WWII and current U.S. Air Force roundel. 5) Contemporary Air Force logo.