May 30th, 2024

USAFA Class of 1984 Graduation – 40 Years Ago

Where does time go? Forty years ago today the Class of 1984 graduated from USAFA (The United States Air Force Academy). These are memories of that day and the class.

Class of 1984 The Beginning

Elsewhere I have chronicled the Class of 1984’s beginning on June 23, 1980. During Beast, I heard a few phrases in the running for our class motto. I personally favored, “’84, Born to Soar”. It was definitely better than “Hit the Ground Running, ’84” that we sometimes chanted before the Noon Meal in Mitchell Hall before lunch. The first Basic I remember offering a class slogan was Russ Vierra, a fellow Executioner. I can’t say that he came up with the winning phrase, but I do associate him with “Hit the ground running”, in some way.

June Week 1984

Reception at A Hall

The week had begun with a breakfast for graduates who attended Vista Grande Baptist at the Sheraton outside of the South Gate (many older grads will remember this as the hotel of choice as there were few options on North Academy Blvd at the time–my family had to reserve rooms there one year in advance). Sunday afternoon was a reception to meet the Academy brass in the Arnold Hall Ballroom, followed by Baccalaureate at the Chapel and a presentation of “Guys and Doll’s by the Bluebards on Sunday evening. Each event was packed.


Monday morning was the Organizational Awards parade, followed by the Individual Award Ceremony in the basketball arena (now Clune Arena, then the AD) in the Fieldhouse that afternoon. After four years of hard work to watch some of my classmates receive such awards as top DFBL grad, top military grad, overall top grad (Keith Heien) was surreal.

Individual Awards Ceremony

The evenings were filled with dinner at local favorites. Cadets of that era fondly remember The Three Thieves, Leon G’s. The Trail Dust, The Hungry Farmer and of course The Flying W Ranch.

The Graduation Parade and Ball

Events ramped up a notch on Tuesday, with the Graduation Parade. The flying wedge on the Parade Field is executed twice in each cadets’ career. One after BCT at the Acceptance Parade to begin a cadet’s career when the fourthclass enters the Parade Field. The other at the Graduation Parade when the Firstie Class marches off the Parade Field. Second Squadron and Fortieth Squadron form the tips of the flying wedge and 40th Squadron Commander, Jeff Wesley executed the command perfectly. The Wing NCO later conveyed that it was a perfect flying wedge, I think he had seen only one other.

Graduation Parade

The afternoon consisted of tours of the Cadet area and moving out last items from the Squadron.

The evening of May 29, 1984, family and friends of the Class of `1984 gathered in Mitchell Hall for the Graduation Banquet. There were two sittings that evening, and Mitch’s was adorned with beautiful ice sculptures and a well displayed buffet. in the center of the dining hall. Girls in long dresses and cadets in their mess dress. This was followed by a Cadet Graduation Ball at the Arnold Hall Ballroom and a Ball for the parents at the O’Club. Randy Price and I took one another’s sisters. One sister was very quiet, the other was not.

The Swearing In Ceremony

Then time for the Swearing In Ceremony as the clock approached midnight. Ceremonies were pretty much restricted to the Academy grounds, so 40th Squadron got stuck with the West Gym. There were not a lot of other options. As a 3 degree I had asked Capt. Charlie Baldwin a 1969 grad, a highly decorated rescue helicopter pilot from Vietnam and the most popular chaplain at USAFA to swear me in. He had agreed in the interim to doing multiple ceremonies that evening as several others asked him for the same honor. He asked my permission to do the others first and then do my ceremony last so he could stay and celebrate.

Swearing In at the West Gym

The first two went without a hitch, then a snag. The third AOC was not sticking to schedule, meanwhile Capt. Baldwin, fresh from running from two other ceremonies waited in the back. Meanwhile my name was called to come forward, no Capt. Baldwin. They skipped my name and finished the last five names. Still no Capt. Baldwin. Jeff Wesley had signaled his Dad asking if he would swear me in. With an affirmative, Jeff Wesley signaled Capt. Shanahan the message. Capt. Shanahan then announced that “Jeff Wesley will now swear in Daryl Smith”.

As we went forward, we asked Capt. Shanahan if this was legal. He said he thought it was, but if it wasn’t he would re-swear me in, in the morning. Jeff swore me in, my mom and sister pinned on my shoulder boards, and my Dad shook my hand. We circled as classmates for a toast, then Capt. Baldwin walked in, red faced and chagrined. He apologized profusely and we all got a laugh and a memory from it. As sergeant gave me my first salute as I drove away by the tennis courts.

Graduation Day – The Prelude

Wednesday, May 1984 dawned a gloriously beautiful day.  Not a cloud in the sky and President Reagan was coming.  There had not been a sitting president attend graduation since Richard Nixon 1 5 years earlier.  Ronald Reagan was nearing the zenith of his well earned popularity.  The whole city was abuzz, “Welcome Mr. President” proclaimed the headline of the Gazette Telegraph.  The story of how President Reagan came is for a separate blog.

No one was totally prepared for the wild day ahead.  My classmate, Rob Puckett, decided to change into his Parade Dress in the woods outside of Falcon Stadium.  After he was undressed, but before he could redress, the Secret Service happened upon him in the woods, asking why he was there.

Apparently due to the long absence since a President had come, no one was prepared well.  As the story goes, there were only ten metal detectors put into place.  Yet everyone, everyone it seemed in Colorado Springs, plus parents, family and friends showed up that day at graduation.  It had to be a record crowd.  Well, the metal detectors caused a huge bottle neck. 

Class of 1984 Graduation March On

Meanwhile, I stood in the back row of the tunnel waiting to march onto the football field.  It dawned on me.  I will never be gathered altogether with these guys again, ever.  We have been together for four years and it ends today.  It was, honestly, quite sobering. 

Finally, the moment came, and we marched on.  It was beautiful, President Reagan then entered, and they shut down entries.  A large number of people, including some families, were still outside the stadium unable to enter.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan, The Great Communicator, gave a vintage Reagan speech, complete with the promise of the Space Shuttle and references to Waldo Dumsquat.  One of his aides told him of the Altimeter Check.  “Sir, my altitude is 7,250 feet above sea level, far, far above that of West Point or Annapolis.” at which the crowd erupted.

The football team had won the Commander and Chief’s Trophy our 2 degree year (the first in USAFA history) and repeated again as Firsties.  Marty Louthan, Johnny Kershner and Mike Kirby presented Reagan with a USAFA football jersey and Reagan gave the Commander in Chief’s Trophy in return. 

Then it got really impressive.  President Regan saluted and presented the diplomas to all of the Distinguished Graduates (DGs), roughly 90 in number.  Then they began to call the names of each graduate squadron by squadron. Meanwhile, I sat in the back, 40th Squadron.  Sam Donaldson of ABC News was stationed behind me with the press corps.  He was so obnoxious.  “Oh, can you believe he said that”…accompanying with different gasps of disgust as Reagan had spoken.  So much for a non-biased, neutral press.  I had wanted to turn and say, “Mr. Donaldson could you keep your remarks to yourself, I am trying to enjoy my graduation.” 

Sitting there, I also thought and prayed about what I should say to the President when I got up there.  I figured this was my one shot to meet a president and I greatly respected this one.  Every ten squadrons or so, they would stop reading the names.  President Reagan would sit down and take a sip of water, the hot sun beating down on his thin wool suit, then he would get back up and we would go again.  Finally, my turn came.  I was coming from stage right, #993 out of 997 that day. 

As they called my name I approached the President from his left.  He was staring off into space to his right, obviously tired from the day’s events.  I said, “Excuse me Mr. President”.  “Oh, oh,” he said as he turned towards me.  “Congratulations,” he offered.  I said, “Thank you for coming out,” as I peered into his steely grey eyes, I looked into his forehead and hair, it was black with just a few strands of grey.  His complexion was smooth and his coloring good.  I said, “President Reagan, I want you to know that me and several other guys here pray for you every day.”  “Well, thank you, thank you so much” (as he grabbed my elbow).  “What did you say your name was?”  “It’s Daryl Smith”.  “Thank you, thank you very much”.  “Well, I guess I ought to be going,” as chirped as I released his hand.

Graduation Day – The Thunderbird Postlude

Down the ramp I went to salute my classmate, Bill Shobert, and then turned to receive a salute from my classmate, Bill Walkowiak.  The stadium erupted when they called the last graduate’s name, Scott Wilhelm.  Then General Burshnick (the Comm) approached the podium.  “Ladies and Gentlemen, Class of 1984, you are dismissed”!  As the Thunderbirds screamed across the clear sky overhead. 

Time stood still.

I reached for my cap in slow motion.  This is the moment, I thought.  It is finally here.  I felt the cap coming slowly off my head.  My arm dropped,  I then flung the hat into the air, hard.  Hats began to drop, and time returned to normal speed.  We had graduated.

We mobbed and mingled on the stadium floor as children rushed to gather the treasure of a white cap.  I waited for my family who I had arranged to meet me on the field. While I waited, I made my way toward the stage.  President Reagan was still sitting in the front row.  We were all waiting for the Thunderbird show to begin.  After a long wait, I heard President Reagan ask, “Where are the Thunderbirds”?  We were all asking the same question. 

Where were the Thunderbirds on this crystal clear day?  The crowd who was unable to make it into the stadium (due to the metal detector fiasco) had all headed to their cars and began driving away.  The Thunderbirds are not allowed to perform while vehicles are moving.  There was no stopping the detachment of disgruntled families.  The Thunderbirds never returned.

But the Class of 1984 flew off to their new careers.  ’84 Wings to Soar…40 years ago today.

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