CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Not everybody can say they've been hugged by the prime minister of Israel. How many West Virginia boys grow up to be brigadier generals? Or huddle with bigwigs in the White House? Or trot around the globe at the elbow of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
Charlie Stebbins owes all that to the Air Force Academy.
At 74, the amiable Charleston native looks back on a mind-boggling military, business and academic career spurred by his serendipitous enrollment at the academy in 1957.
Equipped with several degrees, including a doctorate in aerospace engineering (that tells you something), he taught aeronautics, math and thermodynamics at the academy, spent a year as a planner in Vietnam, then worked four years at the Pentagon poring over the defense budget and war plans.
He joined the National Security Council under President Carter, then served as executive assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Heady stuff.
He finished his working life as business school dean and academic leader at the University of Charleston.
Through it all, he picked up enough anecdotes to fill a book. He's working on it now.
"I lived on MacCorkle Avenue right across the street from the Montessori School. It was McGwigan School then. My father was employed at the Naval Ordnance Plant in South Charleston. My mother and father divorced when I was 6.
"When I was about 9, my mother remarried, and we moved up on Bridge Road next to the fire station. I graduated from Charleston High in 1957.
"Sarah and I started going together in 1954. Her father was Harry Brawley. Her sister is Harriet Nottingham, the world's greatest pharmacist at Rite Aid. When we came back to town 10 years ago, people would ask who we were. We would tell them that Sarah's sister was Harriet Nottingham, and we had instant credibility.
"My father had two years of college, and my mom had no college, so they didn't push me to go. When I found out Sarah's parents had enrolled her at WVU, I got a little panicky. I thought I would like to go to West Point. Neat uniforms.
"Sen. Byrd was already committed to someone for the West Point appointment and asked if I would consider the Air Force Academy. I got some literature. It looked pretty neat. The congressmen and senators could nominate 10 people, 80 nominees from West Virginia. We took exams, and four of us finally made it in.
"I went to the Air Force Academy in July 1957. It was a horrible year. You sat at attention and had to run everywhere you went. 'Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuse, sir.' Once I became an upperclassman, I liked it.
"I graduated with a major in engineering and science. They put me into Cal Tech in Pasadena, and I got a couple of degrees. I thought I was God's gift to the academic world. The first test, I worked my tail off. I came out with 40 percent. It was humbling.
"The academy had just opened a small research lab, and I wanted to go back. After a couple of years in this research job, I wanted to go to pilot training.
"I had just finished my doctorate at Colorado University. I was heading for pilot training when I developed a small arrhythmia. The Air Force said I'd better not go.
"My time in the lab was up. Then the faculty dean asked me to be his executive assistant. Sarah was working at the academy. She taught the people who became computer science teachers, so she was really a pioneer.
"So I stayed in that job for three years and went to Vietnam for a year. All my classmates had gone and paid their dues, so I volunteered. My job was to do detailed plans for closing the last two bases in Vietnam, in Da Nang and Saigon. I also worked on the plans for the repatriation for prisoners of war.
"I thought the war was ill-advised. Guys who were in the thick of it would have a different opinion. I was only shot at once. To me, it was more of a staff job, inconvenient being away from home and a little frightening at times, but not much.
"Back from Vietnam, I went to the Pentagon. I knew some guys there and wrote a letter to them. I was a major and got promoted to lieutenant colonel there.
"We were in a little office that was frankly a sweatshop. We worked our tails off, 110 hours a week. I spent nights on the floor in my office, and Sarah would bring the camper and park it in the parking lot so I could go out and get three hours of sleep. It was a nightmare.
"I was working on arms control, the defense budget, about everything you could imagine to do with the military. There were seven of us in this exclusive little shop. Two were Rhodes Scholars and all of them had Ph.Ds.
"It was a time of intellectual growth for me. I sat at the feet of masters of the art and learned to deal with politics in Washington and the Defense Department.
"After almost four years, I was burned out. Then someone in the military nominated me to be a staff member at the White House just after Carter was inaugurated in '77.