Academy's first graduates look back on 50 years with pride

June 3, 2009
photo - The Air Force Academy’s Class of 1959 starts the tradition of flinging their hats in the air at the end of their graduation ceremony in the theater at Arnold Hall. It was the smallest graduating class ever at the academy, with 207 graduates. Photo by Photo courtesy of the Air Force Academy
The Air Force Academy’s Class of 1959 starts the tradition of flinging their hats in the air at the end of their graduation ceremony in the theater at Arnold Hall. It was the smallest graduating class ever at the academy, with 207 graduates. Photo by Photo courtesy of the Air Force Academy 

They were the first class to graduate from the Air Force Academy - the Class of 1959 - and though they were the smallest group ever, they established a legacy of achievement, leadership and tradition that lives on today, 50 years after their graduation on a cold, rainy June 3.

That's right. It was almost identical to the conditions in Colorado Springs on Wednesday.

And it drove the ceremony indoors for the only time in the academy's history.

"The weather was exactly like it is today, 50 years later," retired Maj. Gen. Harold "Pete" Todd said Wednesday. "It was a disappointment. Our graduation was supposed to be on the parade grounds. They moved us indoors to the theater at Arnold Hall."

Besides disappointing the cadets, the move frustrated many family members who had traveled across the country for the historic ceremony. The theater wouldn't accommodate all the guests, and many were left outside.

"Instead of six tickets for each cadet, they only allowed two guests each," Todd said.

But the inconvenience didn't ruin the enthusiasm of the 207 graduates, as they were commissioned as second lieutenants.

"It would take more than that to dampen the thrill of getting out of that place," Todd said.

Don't get him wrong. Todd loves the Air Force Academy. It just took a few years to appreciate the value of education and officer training he received at the new military institute.

"We wanted to get out and fly airplanes," Todd said. "That place was like a monastery for us. We wanted that school in the rearview mirror."

The Class of '59 spent three years in temporary quarters at Lowry Air Force Base in Aurora before moving into the academy's permanent home north of Colorado Springs in the summer of 1958. Only a handful of buildings were completed at the time - a dormitory, the dining hall, an academic building, the main office building and Arnold Hall.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was heating up, and the Air Force was relatively new as the fourth branch of the military, following its creation in 1947.

Young officers such as Todd were eager to get out of the classroom and into the cockpit.

Colorado Springs might as well have been a million miles from the hot spots in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Cuba and elsewhere.

Todd's attitude changed after he flew 156 combat missions, mostly in B-52 bombers, in Vietnam and Southeast Asia and took on a variety of assignments before his retirement in 1989.

"I couldn't wait to get away, and then spent the next 30 years trying to get the Air Force to send me back to the academy," he said. "I had to wait until I retired to reach my dream of living here."

Retired Col. Jim Brown recalls the first graduation as mostly a blur.

"Everybody was so happy to be finished and on their way," Brown said.

Diplomas were presented to cadets by Secretary of the Air Force James Douglas, and the commissions were presented by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Thomas D. White. But the cadets hadn't been overlooked by the White House.

On May 17, 1959, less than three weeks before graduation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made a whirlwind visit, inspecting the cadet wing and addressing the Class of '59 at the dining hall, comparing their experience to Army's West Point and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

"The two older academies are rich in tradition," Eisenhower said. "They are very proud of those traditions. To you men have been given the opportunity to create another tradition.

"Everything is, with you, a first. The first graduation of this academy - this proud academy and which, through the years, will be prouder - will be something you will be looking back on all your lives. And even those who come after you will remember the incidents, the customs you will create, the way of graduation, its very procedures. I don't know whether it will be throwing caps or somersaults - but it will be tradition.

"People, 50 years later, will be doing these same things. You improve and enrich upon tradition, but the basic soul of what you establish now will live on."

The indoor graduation didn't become tradition. But other events surrounding the Class of '59's graduation live on.

For example, Brown said the cadets enjoyed a formal parade on the quad the day before and a flyover to celebrate the ceremonial turning over of the wing to the junior class.

Today, the Thunderbirds aerobatics display is a highlight of the day.

And Brown laughed at the memory of the first class starting the traditional tossing of their hats to close the graduation ceremony.

"Hats went everywhere," he said.

Some of the things the Class of '59 pioneered have evolved in ways Todd never dreamed.

"We all took the oath of commissioning before graduation," Todd said. "For us, it was just another formation before the formal graduation. It's grown into a striking ceremony today. It's done the night before and it's done with families there, one squadron at a time. It's a major event."

There's one more tradition Todd fondly recalls.

"When an officer is newly commissioned, the first person who gives him a salute gets a dollar from the officer," Todd said. "So, as soon as we graduated, some of the underclassmen were lined up outside, popping off salutes and collecting dollars. That still goes on today."

Class of 1959

  • 306 entered the academy on July 11, 1955.
  • 207 graduated on June 3, 1959.
  • It was the smallest graduating class in academy history.
  • Two graduates went on to become four-star generals: Gen. Michael P. Carns, former Air Force vice chief of staff; and Gen. H.T. Johnson, the last commander of Military Airlift Command.



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