Keesler conference room dedicated to Col Dempsey, true ATC pioneer
By Bill Malec
Imagine Abraham Lincoln being on hand to attend the unveiling of the Washington D.C. monument commissioned in his honor. First there’d be lots of speeches with good words said about the guest of honor followed by the honoree’s offering of thanks and reflections.
While not on as grand a scale, Colonel (ret) Derrel “DY” Dempsey, was recognized March 9 for his exemplary career achievements with the dedication of a conference room at the Air Force’s air traffic control schoolhouse in his honor. Col. Dempsey was blessed to participate in the ribbon-cutting.
The 334th Training Squadron, located at the Air Force’s technical training center at Keesler AFB, Miss., hosted the event. Situated in Cody Hall, the 334th staff provides training in all aspects of ground-based aerospace command and control. This includes initial and advanced training for both enlisted and officer air traffic controllers, the latter now known as airfield operations officers.
A previous 334th squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jeff McLemore knew first-hand of Colonel Dempsey and his career accomplishments. During a previous assignment in U. S. Air Forces in Europe he was their nominee for the Colonel Derrel L. Dempsey Airfield Operations Officer of the Year award.
The Air Force ATC officer described Colonel Dempsey as a “living legend” when they named this Air Force level award in his honor in 1995. He was later a first ballot unanimous inductee into the Air Force Communications and Information Hall of Fame in 2006.
Lt Col McLemore became aware that some of Colonel Dempsey’s career memorabilia was available to a good home and a plan to recognize him began to take shape. McLemore’s goal was to increase the awareness and appreciation for the colonel and his accomplishments at the schoolhouse where ATC careers begin.
A tree starts with a single seed but needs to be planted and then nurtured in order to grow fruit. Lt. Col. McLemore was a regular Johnny Appleseed in blue in this effort.
Unfortunately Lt. Col. McLemore’s tour ran its course before his vision could be fully executed. His replacement, Lt. Col. Kevin Bray, was eager and able to pick up the ball and move it down the (air) field. In the end he scored a touchdown!
Colonel Dempsey’s big day began with a ceremony attended by Keesler’s senior leaders, 334th staffers, and airfield operations students. Many of Colonel Dempsey’s old friends, peers, and protégées were also in attendance to pay homage. As a bonus the colonel’s grandson, Senior Airman Kiefer Luth, himself an air traffic controller assigned at Columbus AFB, Miss., was also present.
The speakers highlighted the colonel’s impressive 30-year career which culminated with his retirement in 1984. During his years of service he excelled in a wide variety of assignments as a student, flight inspection pilot, air traffic control officer, commander, and staff officer.
As an aviator he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for an aerial event that occurred in Southeast Asia in 1968. Colonel Dempsey was part of a 3-man aircrew that completed a combat essential flight inspection mission while under hostile conditions and in deteriorating weather.
Later as a senior staff officer, assigned to Air Force Communications Command headquarters, he led the Air Force’s quick reaction response to the Federal Aviation Administration’s controller strike of 1981. The strike threatened to cripple the nation’s aviation system. He orchestrated initial deployment and logistical support for 640 Air Force controllers to 75 FAA facilities.
One retired Air Force controller, now a civilian ATC instructor, recalled the strike well. Mr. Larry Cannedy deployed as a young noncommissioned officer from Dover AFB, DE to JFK International Airport. “It was an awesome experience and one that I will never forget. We felt like heroes.”
In his address Colonel Dempsey portrayed himself as just a Midwest farm boy who graduated from high school and hoped to go to college. He joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at Bradley University and was later commissioned in the Air Force motivated by concerns about the draft He never dreamed he’d be a pilot or an ATC officer, have an Air Force career, or be responsible for the best military air traffic control system in the free world.
He emphasized what he believed were two keys to his success. “When given a task I always tried to do what was expected of me and a bit more. Empathy was also a rule that guided my performance daily…treat everyone in terms of leadership and support as if I was in their position of responsibility and work.”
After the speeches Colonel Dempsey led the group downstairs where, with the assistance of 81st Training Wing commander, Brig Gen Patrick Higby, the ribbon was cut on the “Dempsey Conference Room”.
General Higby was pleased to take part in the event. “It’s very inspiring for us when we can incorporate our “living history” into our heritage program. Unfortunately, too many of the heroes and trailblazers we cherish by renaming things in their honor are no longer with us.”
Lt. Col. Bray recalled words of Air Education and Training Command commander, Gen Robin Rand, "History makes you smarter, but heritage makes you prouder." Colonel Bray added, “I couldn't have been more proud to be a part of a team that honored a legendary Airman.”
The conference room had recently undergone a complete and largely self-help facelift. In addition to painting and detailing, Colonel Dempsey’s memorabilia coupled with squadron and ATC artifacts to decorate the room and give it a distinctly ATC ambiance.
Old, current, and wannabe controllers later gathered in the Dempsey Conference Room to meet, greet and interact. There was a strong common bond, whether their ATC experiences took place in the 1950s, last week, or in their dreams.
Many of the older heads gathered around Colonel Dempsey to express their appreciation and catch up on lives, families and careers. For a few precious minutes DY held court…just like old times.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jim Robilotta journeyed from Los Angeles to show his support. “DY was always there for all his ATC officers and enlisted controllers, so I had to be here for him for this wonderful honor.”
Colonel (ret.) Roger Bacchieri traveled from snow-covered Boston to participate in the event. “DY cared about our air traffic business, and because he cared, you cared,” added the colonel. “You wanted to earn his respect and approval, that C+ he awarded when you "done good!"”
Colonel Dempsey summed up his feelings pretty succinctly, "This was one of the best days of my life."
After he retired from the Air Force in 1984, Mr. Dempsey worked another 10 years as a civilian contractor for the modernization of air traffic control systems.
In recognition of his many years of service to his country, Colonel Dempsey has earned many prestigious awards. Among them are the Joseph P. Duckworth, Jr. Award for contributions to the art of instrument flying; the Traffic Control Association President’s Citation of Merit for driving expansion of air traffic control wartime readiness; induction into the AF Cyberspace Operations and Support Hall of Fame; and the Air Traffic Control Association George W. Kriske Memorial Award. With all of these accomplishments, the Air Force Flight Standards Agency, the AF function for air traffic control, declared Colonel Dempsey a “living legend in the air traffic control realm” and renamed the Air Force’s annual Air Traffic Control Manager (Officer) of the Year award in his honor in 1995.
Although he never actually took a course in Cody Hall, Keesler AFB, Colonel Dempsey developed the ATC enlisted and officer career development and training programs to increase quality and qualifications of the work force, parts of which are still used today across the Air Force. His dedication to the AF and disciplined work ethic inspired not only Airfield Operations Officers and Air Traffic Controllers, but all Airmen who had the privilege to know him.
Note: Both Bill Malec (author) and Colonel Dempsey are members of the AF Communicators and Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Order of Daedalians (life member)
Air Force Association (life member)
Distinguished Flying Cross Society
Air Traffic Control Association
Disabled American Veterans “Silver Leader”
National Geographic Society
Air Force Communicators and Air Traffic Controllers Association (life member)
AWARDS AND DECORATIONS
Legion of Merit (1 Oak Leaf Cluster)
Distinguished Flying Cross
Bronze Star Medal
Meritorious Service Medal (1 Oak Leaf Cluster)
Air Medal (7 Oak Leaf Clusters)
Air Force Commendation Medal (1 Oak Leaf Cluster)
Air Force Outstanding Unit Award V (2 Oak Leaf Clusters)
Combat Readiness Medal
National Defense Medal
Air Force Expeditionary Medal (1 Bronze Star)
Vietnam Service Medal (2 Bronze Stars)
Vietnam Cross of Gallantry w/Palm