The United State Air Force Academy is perched just northwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado at 7,250 feet above sea level. It stands in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, the mountain that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write "America, The Beautiful" in 1913. Visit, or even just drive by the Academy on the interstate, and you’ll be equally inspired by this home to 4,000 Air Force Cadets; a mid-century modern campus of aluminum and steel topped with the iconic cadet chapel.
Next fall visitors will also see the 105-foot tall glass tower of the Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development rising above campus like the vertical stabilizer of an aircraft. This privately-funded tower aims at the North Star, Polaris, a symbol selected by the first class of graduates, the Class of 1959, to indicate a cadet’s intention to always be guided by honor and strength of character.
In between these two iconic buildings, however, is my favorite location on campus. Walk north from the Chapel steps and you’ll pass a small garden perfect for a quiet moment of reflection. At the center of this garden is a circle of benches with a statue of Lt. Gen. (ret.) Hubert R. Harmon, “father” of the Air Force Academy and its first Superintendent, my predecessor 18-times removed.
Lt. Gen. Harmon is an inspiring figure for all Airmen, but he didn’t start that way. As Ms. Bates was writing her lyrics, Gen. Harmon was struggling through his ‘Cow’ (i.e., junior) year at the US Military Academy (USMA) at West Point. He would eventually graduate alongside his classmates Cadets Eisenhower and Bradley with the Class of 1915. Although initially assigned to the Coast Artillery Corps, Gen Harmon would find his place serving in the Air Service. During World War II he served in the South Pacific culminating a distinguished career as commander of the 13th Air Force, which supported the allies’ drive from the Solomon Islands to the Philippines. However, it was for his service after the war that tens of thousands of Airmen owe him their gratitude.
If you visit the Air Force Academy this Memorial Day you may just find me in the quiet space with Gen. Harmon reflecting on his own words of wisdom: “Leaders triumph over the average with excellence and over self-interest with service in a worthy cause.”
Upon returning from the war, Gen. Harmon served as special assistant for Air Academy matters at the new Air Force Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Despite being retired and recalled to active duty twice – the second time by his USMA classmate, then President Eisenhower, Gen. Harmon served as the driving force for the establishment of our Air Force’s Academy. He not only oversaw the selection of the site in the shadow of Pike’s Peak and the approval of the modernistic campus nestled in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, but he also institutionalized the comprehensive curriculum focused on character, leadership, academics, military training, airmanship, and athletic competition.
Unfortunately, he did not live to see the graduation of the first class of cadets on June 3, 1959. However, the graduation speaker, Secretary of the Air Force James H. Douglas, acknowledged General Harmon’s contribution, a curriculum Secretary Douglas characterized as: “designed to provide an understanding and appreciation of man, of his relationships, and of the world in which he lives, along with technical knowledge of military aviation, and training for the responsibilities of leadership…the best possible preparation for mastering the extraordinarily varied problems of the Air Force of the future...preparation for a lifetime of discovery and learning and service.“
Indeed, “discovery, learning and service” remain the outcomes instilled in every Academy graduate today and are exactly the characteristics I think of when I reflect on my predecessor. So, if you visit the Air Force Academy this Memorial Day you may just find me in the quiet space with Gen Harmon reflecting on his own words of wisdom: “Leaders triumph over the average with excellence and over self-interest with service in a worthy cause.” Thank you for your “worthy cause” Gen. Harmon and thanks to all of those who have served our Air Force and our great nation!
You make me proud to be an American and proud to continue your tradition of service.
Lieutenant General Michelle D. Johnson is the Superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy, a four-year undergraduate institution of nearly 4,000 students that graduates officers ready to lead in the United States Air Force.