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Innerviews: Air Force career flies to high places

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.

"There were about 30 staff members in the National Security Council. I had some arms control and defense budget responsibilities. Everything that had to do with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons came through me to the president. FEMA was fledgling then. My job was to watch over them. Everything that came to the president to do with FEMA came through me.

"I had to present all sides to an issue boiled down to a single page with clear options. You could not send anything to the president longer than that. If it required a decision, he would initial that part, and we would publish it as policy.

"It's not as special as you might imagine. There were good people there, but I was not overwhelmed. It was great fun. I wasn't on the top tier. I was in the third tier. The president didn't live and breathe based on my recommendations.

"I was on a negotiating team sitting across the table from the Soviets in Geneva on an issue. I got to see some neat stuff there.

"Carter was a great person, but he wanted to do it all himself, and I think that was his undoing. When he sat around the cabinet room, he was so genuine. If only he could have projected that as president.

"At the end of the Carter administration, I got a call saying the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted me as his executive officer. I was exhausted, but that was even more interesting than the White House.

"We traveled all over the world. A lot of unsettling things were going on in the Middle East. We spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Greece, Turkey. It was really something.

"I would brief people on issues we had with the Soviet Union. We would show satellite photography of things the Soviets were doing. This was '82. Those countries had not seen satellite photography. They thought that was really neat.

"On one trip, we spent four hours with the vice president of Egypt, the guy who just got deposed, Hosni Mubarak. We talked about everything.

"We left there and went to Jerusalem. We were supposed to meet with Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin. My boss and I were in two different cars. He got to Begin's office before my car, and they closed the door.

"What was I going to do? I was the note taker and all that stuff. Suddenly, the door opens and Begin comes over and hugs me and says, 'Aw, colonel, come in. We're sorry we shut the door on you.' So I got a hug from the prime minister of Israel.

"We did some serious stuff over there at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war and built some really good political and military bridges with the Saudis that have lasted to today.

"The chairman was ready to retire after I'd been with him two years. I went to the Air Force Systems Command, which was responsible for building all the weapons systems for the Air Force. I was a planner.

"After a year, they asked me to command a laboratory in Rome, N.Y., the Rome Air Development Center. I was mayor of a town essentially. I had 1,100 people reporting to me.

"A year later, they called me back to D.C. as commander of all the Air Force labs, 13 or 14 of them. That got me the promotion to general.

"I stayed three years. My boss said if I wanted the second star, he would have to move me to Albuquerque N.M., to run the Air Force Contract Management Division. But Sarah had a big job at the Naval Research Lab in D.C., and I wanted to stay in science and technology. I could have chased another promotion, but I'd been in 27 years. In 1988, I retired.

"A guy I worked with in the Air Force had an organization he wanted me to run, then called Logicon, dealing with nuclear weapons. That was a difficult job. If you hadn't built a bomb, you had no credibility. Logicon was finally bought by Northrop Grumman, and I stayed with them for 12 years and became a corporate vice president and retired from there in 2002 and came home.

"Holmes Morrison introduced me to Ed Welch. I told Ed I'd like to do some pro bono work for UC. I started gathering some statistics for him. He called one day and said he'd lost his undergraduate business school head and asked if I'd take over just for six weeks. He said I could still play golf every Wednesday afternoon.

"Later, he told me he also wanted me to be provost and dean of the faculty along with running the business school. Just six months, he said, and I could still play golf every Wednesday afternoon. He lied. It ended up being five years.

"I got so tired of parents calling saying, 'My child got a C in English. My child never got a C in high school.' I prayed for strength to deal with the parents. I left -- for a year.

"The head of the graduate business school left, and Ed wanted me to run the undergrad and graduate business schools for a while. I did it for a year and retired.

"I'm on the board for the school. And I just joined the Fund for the Arts board. And I'm writing a book. It's going to be vignettes, 90 percent humorous. A lot of funny things have happened to me. I like to tease and be teased and I like to tell jokes. I have a joke for every occasion.

"I've been blessed. Things happened that weren't planned. I had no idea what I was going to do. The Academy shaped me. It put everything together. The Air Force did a good job for me."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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