TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. —
As Alphonso Thomas, recently retired director of the Air Force Support Center Engineering and Technical Management Branch, reflects on his 41-year career in the Air Force, a word comes to mind. spirit: grateful.
Thank you to everyone who supported and encouraged the boy who grew up in a cabin behind a house on a dirt road in small town Alabama.
Grateful for his teachers, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to open doors for him.
Grateful for the opportunities provided by the Air Force that led to a life well lived.
Growing up in a segregated elementary school in Eufaula, Alabama, Thomas’ sense of self began to take shape in fifth grade when his teacher, Mrs. Wells, encouraged him to enter the performing arts.
“She was one of the first people to help me understand that it was okay to be proud of who I was,” he shared, “despite being poor, being black.”
He became involved in the performing arts, performing in school plays on the Underground Railroad and performing Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech at school assemblies.
After joining the brand new Admiral Moorer Integrated College, he found his second love: music. Thanks to his seventh-grade conductor, a school-owned baritone horn ended up in his hands and the rest is history.
“I progressed pretty quickly, and he actually put me in the high school marching band while I was still in middle school. Between music, art, and poetry, I gained confidence in myself” , said Thomas. “It gave me the confidence to try bigger and better things.”
This love of music went hand in hand with a love of mathematics. “The funny thing is, I always seemed to do well in math. Math was the only class that after finishing my homework I looked for other problems to solve. I spent a lot of time on music and math because they amused me.
In high school, Thomas was walking away from the auditorium where the National Honor Society induction was taking place when his guidance counselor frantically waved him down, trying to stop him from leaving. “I walked into the auditorium and heard my name announced as an honor society inductee. I was also surprised to find that my mother was there in the audience.
“On senior year awards day, I heard my name being called again. This time I received a Navy ROTC scholarship to attend Auburn! I didn’t even remember applying, so I suspect my advisor applied for me. I’ll never forget that day.”
He dropped out of high school and headed to Auburn University early to attend band camp and later start his math degree, but soon realized his true calling was music. Feeling frustrated, he explored changing his scholarship from math to music. In the process, he met an Air Force recruiter who told him he could make a living in the Air Force Band. After a successful audition, he left Auburn before the end of the first term of school to enlist in the Air Force.
That decision alone sent him on a two-year tour of the southeastern United States and a European tour for the next two years. Even while he was doing what he loved, he filled his evenings with college classes in math and computer science.
Upon learning of his evening classes, one of his superiors recommended that he apply for the Airman Education and Commissioning Program to “compete to be discharged to school full-time, as the The Air Force was looking for more engineers and looking for enlisted people who might have that insight. So I applied, competed, and was selected, and I was sent to Auburn, where I started, for three years, full-time, but this time in electrical engineering. It’s one of his proudest moments, going from college dropout to alumnus.
“From the beginning, my mother gave me the best advice: don’t just treat others as you would like to be treated; think about how they want to be treated,” he said. “It shaped who I am and who I want to become.”
While in uniform and stationed in Germany, Thomas and his new wife experienced that kind of love, making them pay for it all their lives.
“I met Fred and Delores Wilson at the chapel there in Germany, where they ‘adopted’ Airmen who were away from home and needed a sense of belonging. They were kind enough to provide space for my wife and I when we first got married until our accommodation was ready. Not only are they lifelong friends, but they were parents and grandparents to our family for decades.
The Thomas family was able to pay for it when, in 2010, they were stationed in Rome, New York. Every year, interns from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund came to work there, spending their summers among a predominantly white population.
“Of the 1,200 people in the AFRL Information Branch, only 10 of us were African American and most were support staff. My wife and I took these interns home for BBQs, took them to church services on Sundays, and did our weekly grocery run so they had everything they needed for a home away from home. . Some years there were as many as 12 of these students.
“Even now, we’re still a part of a lot of their lives, watching them grow, watching their family grow; this is a victory for me.
He continued his advocacy of military youth later in his civilian career, when he established two programs at 402n/a Software maintenance group. One was the Junior Force Council, which gave junior employees a voice in senior management and an integrated support system. The other was the Voluntary Redeployment Program, created to keep employees engaged in their career path by allowing them to change jobs if they were not fully committed or wanted to expand. Although unconventional in its nature, the program ultimately improved production numbers and worker morale.
After 14 years of uniformed service, Thomas separated from the Air Force in 1992 and returned to Boston. He attended one of the best music schools in the world, Berklee College of Music, known for its alumni who excel in contemporary music. There, Thomas honed his skills in saxophone performance. To support his family, he performed concerts on the East Coast, including a permanent fixture at the Joyful Noise Concert each year at Harvard University. He recorded his album While we still can in 1997, with a mix of original songs and covers.
Today, his collection of instruments includes, among others, five saxophones, three keyboards, two guitars and a flute. His post-retirement plan is to put them all to good use on stage in the Atlanta area.
Thomas eventually grew tired of being on the road and returned to government service as a civilian. He credits his first supervisor in the Senior Executive Service with inspiring him to pursue his executive leadership.
“He said to me, ‘Al, I believe you can do whatever you want, you just have to believe in yourself,’ which inspired him to attend the Federal Executive Institute and the Air Force Enterprise Leadership Seminar. as next steps. in his civilian career.
“The Air Force, both military and civilian, has given me opportunities that I would never have had otherwise – in particular, paid for a bachelor’s degree; paid for a master’s degree; and the additional leadership training and education I received. The Federal Executive Institute’s four-week course in Leadership for a Democratic Society was a life-changing event.
“Anywhere outside of government I would never have had these opportunities. I took classes at the University of Virginia and Harvard University – it was phenomenal. And then work – work is absolutely changing To have the chance to not only see and touch, but to make changes to the weapon systems that are used to protect our nation is phenomenal.
Thomas looks back on his years with pride, watching a young man from Alabama grow and succeed in his two passions: music and math, thanks to the many people who helped him along the way. “It was just awesome. I wish I could make a list and go kiss them all.