Education center reflects on 50 years: Part One - ‘Before him, there was nothing’

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
  • I.G. Brown Training and Education Center

The I.G. Brown Training and Education Center celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2018.

In honor of a half-century of learning, this feature series highlights TEC, from its first classes in a World War II-era aircraft hangar to the present day.

What does it take to put an education center together? Part one looks back at 1968 to 1978.

Building NCO academies

Records show that the Air Force’s first Noncommissioned Officer Academy adapted from the University of Pennsylvania senior officer military management course in 1950, called the Air Forces in Europe Academy of Leadership and Management. This academy had expanded into 10 other accredited NCO academies at around the time the Air National Guard NCO Academy established.

“These NCO academies have been a major factor in restoring NCOs to the positions of responsibility and leadership intended,” said Chief Master Sgt. Paul H. Lankford, NCO Academy deputy commandant, in a 1968 graduation message. “Receiving of the greatest impetus, perhaps, by General Lemay, who said ‘restoration of the NCO to his rightful status … and development of methods to effectively utilize his ability ... are of vital importance to the United States Air Force.’”

Lankford oversaw the active duty Air Defense Command’s academy staff at Hamilton Air Force Base, California, including a two-week trial course for Air Guard and Reserve Airmen in 1967.

Many applied for the California academy, but Chief Master Sgt. George Vitzthum, the Air Guard NCO academy’s second commandant, pointed out that the opportunity was difficult to get - he tried three times to get in but was not selected.

Air Force Maj. Gen. I.G. Brown was invited to speak at the course’s second graduation. Notwithstanding the lack of availability to students, he came away impressed.

Brown was an Arkansas native who served with distinction as an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II. His many leadership roles after the war positioned him to lead the Air Guard.

“Most of the policies affecting the Guard during the 1960s and early 1970s were accomplished during the long tenure of General Brown, who was Director of the ANG from 1962 to 1974,” wrote historian Dr. Charles J. Gross in the ANG’s history.

Getting to Tennessee

Brown asked Air Defense staff and four ANG instructors to provide two trial NCO academy classes, 67-1 and 67-2, for 200 students on McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tennessee.

Lessons began in the base’s aircraft hangar. Sometime later, the base gym converted into eight classrooms and a small library.

“There were four or five fairly new dormitories not being used, the gymnasium, a base theater, a base swimming pool, six family units in the housing area and a fairly nice mess hall,” Vitzthum said in a collection of notes and news clippings. 

The infrastructure remained from an active duty fighter wing before the Tennessee Air Guard took the base in 1957. So the facilities, with some modifications, were easily converted into an NCO academy, Vitzthum said. 

"Overall conditions conducive to teaching and study were excellent," said Master Sgt. William Armocida in a National Guardsman report. "Six classrooms in a hangar, formally used by a mobile training detachment, were put in order. A big crew briefing room with theatre-type seating would be used for large assemblies."

Staffing the schoolhouse 

Officials said that Brown took a personal interest in selecting the academy’s six initial instructors and staff, which included an administrator, a secretary, a deputy commandant and a commandant.

Among them was Lankford, who had already met Brown through the Air Defense Command's academy in California. Before that, he instructed for several years at Otis AFB, Massachusetts.

Lankford's reputation in the Army Air Corps, as a WWII Bataan Death March survivor, and as a POW, may have also preceded him. With the general's job offer, he soon retired from 29 years’ active duty service to take the Air Guard’s deputy commandant position as a government civilian authorized to wear his uniform.

Other Army and Air Guard staff hired included cooks and medical technicians required to support the academy, who came from Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota, according to the National Guardsman.

With a mix of new staff and instructors as well as the experienced Air Defense Command instructors, the academy graduated its first 103 students in Phase II, Class 68-B on July 19, 1968. 

Dignitaries listed at that first graduation included the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Maj. Gen. Winston P. Wilson, as well as the Air Force’s Chief of Staff, Gen. John P. McConnell, and the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Paul W. Airey.

Brown gave the first graduation speech, entitled, “Be Square,” - he returned to provide the same address to the increasing ranks of graduates.

Brown also hired Maj. Edmund C. Morrisey as the first commander and commandant. Morrisey traveled from Texas to take his first command. 

"His advice was very simple, he said, 'make this work,' but little did I know the extent … that would spread to," Morrisey said during the TEC's 45th-anniversary celebration. 

Growing success

The ANG NCO Academy was now established as an official schoolhouse, accreted by the Air Force. It was the first step in Brown’s broader vision for an education center run by ANG Airmen on an ANG base, officials said.

The general wrote personal letters to elected officials and adjutants general across the nation to visit the graduations and see the program and what their Airmen learned.

“I have attended most graduation ceremonies since the formation of our academy in 1968 and, at each one, I return to the Pentagon inspired by the zest and enthusiasm, dedication and loyalty and the intense interest displayed by the academy graduates,” Brown wrote in his invitations.

Among the invitees, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens replied to the general after attending a graduation in 1971. He wrote, “The ceremonies were indeed impressive, and you have every right to be proud of your efforts. The ceremonies certainly speak well for the future of the Air National Guard.”

The school painted a circular “NCO Academy” plywood sign with the ANG logo to use in graduations and in their class photos taken on the grassy hill outside. The academy held a contest in 1969 to come up with an official emblem, and graduates submitted. Sgt. John VanRoo from the Wisconsin ANG created the winning design. 

The entry was modified and approved by the National Guard Bureau. Class 70-3 took the first class photos with the official emblem. Its icons – the lightning bolt, open book, handshake, square knot, lamp and Minuteman – are still used today. 

The academy then developed a two-week summer course for traditional Guardsmen that fit the five-and-a-half week course into their annual training periods. This method of a shortened in-resident attendance evolved during the coming decades, into satellite and computer-based training and remains a choice for drill-status Airmen in professional military education. 

Records also show that the NCO academy honored its 1,000th graduate Oct. 29, 1970. It proclaimed the day “Sergeant Henry Frisby Day.” The Pennsylvania Airman was selected from his class for his achievements and later earned distinction as one of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year.

Leadership school

Airmen arrived for Air Guard NCO Leadership School (a precursor to Airman Leadership School) in July 1970. 

"Unit commanders were looking for better ways to motivate, train and retain their younger grade Airmen," Vitzthum said. 

He was among the leadership school’s first staff of five instructors, who eventually combined their duties with the NCO academy’s skilled teaching staff.

Vitzthum graduated NCO academy in 1970 before he returned to help write and instruct the leadership school curriculum in human relations, oral and written communication, world affairs and military history. 

Officers arrive

The Officer Preparatory Academy followed the enlisted schools as the Air Guard’s first commissioning program (a precursor to the Academy of Military Science) in April 1971. 

“With OPA, every officer in the Guard, after a certain cutoff date, will have some exposure to basic officer military training, something we have not had,” Brown said in an Airman magazine interview.

OPA’s first classes were developed and instructed by the enlisted cadre. Commissioned officers took over, and the name changed to AMS in 1973. Nearly all Air Guard officers earned a commission through the campus. 

Officers who received no pre-commissioning training before AMS were offered the Seminar for Direct Commission Officers, which TEC developed and ran from 1976 to 1978. Three hundred officers took that seminar. 

All combined schools were named the ANG Professional Military Education Center in 1973. 

Closing a decade

More than 6,000 students graduated one of the center's four programs before its 10th anniversary. At that point, PMEC renamed itself the I.G. Brown Air National Guard Professional Military Education Center. 

Brown – recovering from a stroke - joined hundreds of visitors, dignitaries and staff at the renaming ceremony in his honor, June 30, 1978.

They unveiled a cement monument with a metal plaque inscribed with the new name and a crystal quartz cluster quarried near Brown's hometown in Hot Springs. The National Guardsman report said the crystal “was intended to symbolize the ‘cool, hard, many-faceted and clear outlook that characterized Brown’s achievements in the Air Guard directorate.’” 

The day was the pinnacle of years of hard work as well as the highlight of Brown's career before he died three months later on Sept. 26. He was 63. He lived for the dedication; yet, his vision grew into the next decade, which brought changes and new accomplishments.

Other notes

Among the interesting facts about the education center from 1968-1978:

1. The NCO Academy and NCO Leadership School were among the first to allow men and women to reside in the same dormitories. 

2. The first woman to attend Air Guard NCO academy was Staff Sgt. Mary Loy, who went on to represent in the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year. The first woman training officer was Capt. Nancy Graf, from the Michigan Air Guard, who instructed her first Academy of Military Science flight in 1973. 

3. The November 1970 leadership school was among the most significant graduation of Women in the Air Force, with 22 graduates, some earning top awards. 

4. The NCO academy was among the first Air Guard units awarded the Air Force Organizational Excellence Award in 1972. That same year the Air Force Association honored it with the Citation of Honor.

5. PMEC was the first military organization to receive accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools - seven college credits for NCO Academy and four college credits for NCO Leadership School.

6. The National Business and Industry Day began at PMEC in 1972 to gain the support of employers and teach them what Airmen learned in leadership studies. The program ran until 2010.

7. PMEC staff participated and trained Airmen in two presidential inauguration parades.

8. PMEC ran the State Day Program to honor and involve the states as classes graduated. It also honored states by dedicating the dormitory rooms with nameplates and designs.

9. PMEC dedicated Fletcher Hill to Chief Master Sgt. Leonard Fletcher in 1976.  The metal arch and plaque that stands today is a testament to the Class 68-B graduates who marched unendingly down the hill.

10. PMEC staff helped develop and teach the first Air Force Senior NCO Academy classes in Alabama.