After 51 years in Air Force blue, Northwestern's Col. Arthur Ahl retires

dworthington@heraldonline.comJune 15, 2013 

Arthur Ahl – “Ozzie” to his friends – had planned his life.

He would graduate from the University of Louisville, fulfill his ROTC obligations with the U.S. Air Force, and return to the university. Everyone assumed he would take over the school’s physical education department.

But Ahl and the Air Force proved to be a perfect fit. For 51 years, Ahl and his Air Force blues have been synonymous, including the last 24 as Ahl led the Junior ROTC program at Northwestern High School.

The formal relationship between Ahl, 74, and the Air Force is ending as Ahl retires this month. He leaves with the respect and admiration of students, colleagues and the principal of Northwestern’s rival, Rock Hill High, who also is Ahl’s son.

Northwestern principal James Blake said Ahl has been the consummate professional. “He is a stickler for the rules and the regulations; it’s built into his DNA.”

Early in Ahl’s life, athleticism also was built into his DNA. There wasn’t any sport the barrel-chested Ahl couldn’t master. He was fast enough to be offered a track scholarship to the University of Kentucky. He turned that down to keep teaching judo and karate, go to school, and, on the side, become a rock ‘n’ roll crooner as a member of a group called the “Kool Kats.”

He was the only person at the University of Louisville – scholarship athletes included – who had passed the rigorous exam for Sigma Delta Psi, the honorary athletic fraternity. Ahl had to climb a 20-foot rope from a sitting position and stand on his hands. He also had to excel in more traditional sports such as swimming and golf. In all there were 14 athletic tests he had to master.

“I was a jock,” Ahl recalls, and, “I was meant to teach.”

One-half of Ahl’s vision became reality. He was, indeed, meant to teach.

But instead of the Cardinal red of Louisville, Ahl donned the Air Force blue and kept wearing it. Throughout his career, he was rarely seen in public out of uniform.

Ahl received a regular commission in the Air Force upon graduation in 1962. Over the next 27 years he rose to the rank of colonel. He earned his pilot’s wing, then instructed pilots, served a year in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and forward air controller directing fire from unarmed Piper Cubs, and was a training consultant to NATO partners Italy, Greece, Turkey, West Germany and the United Kingdom.

While serving as the assistant director of operations for the airfield at the U.S. Air Force Academy, he made seven free fall jumps to earn his parachute wings.

His parachute wings are positioned below his pilot’s wings on his uniform shirt and on the left breast pocket of his dress blues. The wings are above his row of military medals, which includes the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star and 17 Air Medals. There is also a medal for humanitarian work.

After alternating between commander or assistant commander for the 3800th Air Base Wing at Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Ala., Ahl retired from the Air Force and came to Rock Hill to serve as the senior aerospace science instructor at Northwestern’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps in 1989.

His no-nonsense, by-the-book approach quickly turned the Northwestern program into one of the nation’s best. Ahl repeatedly was named an outstanding instructor, an honor given to the top 10 percent of instructors nationwide.

A showman at heart, Ahl says his life mission has been to see a need and fill it.

Of his military service, Ahl simply said he has done his duty, fulfilling the oath he took when he accepted his commission to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.

His students, colleagues and his son, Arthur “Ozzie” Ahl II, say the senior Ahl excelled because he set high expectations for himself and applied the same standards to those he served with or taught.

“I want everyone to reach their 100 percent,” the senior Ahl said, “whatever that happens to be.”

Blake, Northwestern’s principal, said Ahl’s leadership has extended beyond the ROTC program and throughout Northwestern. “Has he made our students better? Definitely,” Blake said.

Setting high expectations meant that Ahl arrived at school at 7:05 a.m., maybe 7:10 at the latest. The rules require teachers to have their classrooms open by 8:20 a.m.

The high expectations for his cadets extended to all their classes. If a ROTC cadet had a problem in one class, “he had a problem in my class,” Ahl said.

Natalie Rogers, a rising third-year cadet at Northwestern, said she knew from the start that Ahl would be one of her “greatest instructors.”

“It was the way he carried himself. The way he talked,” Rogers said. “What caught my attention was how focused he was and that he paid attention to what I said.”

For Rogers, who has wanted to become a pilot after seeing the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels perform at a Marine air show in San Diego as a young child, joining Northwestern’s AFROTC corps was the “best decision I’ve made. . I can live out my dream.”

Ahl had the same expectations at home for his children, Ozzie Ahl II and daughter Amy Lengel.

“Honor, consistent, patriotic, service oriented, stern, those are the words that come to mind about my father,” said Lengel, who lives in Fayetteville, N.C. “He always had the highest expectations for anyone around him and he gave them tools to succeed.”

The expectations for Lengel included following her father into the Air Force, where she served 15 years, five years on active duty. “It was a way of life growing up,” she said. Her father “passively” encouraged her interest in the service, but “never pushed me to join.”

Ozzie Ahl II said, “there was consistency; there was never any question where you stood. You knew what was expected and you got support. There was the expectation of performance.”

As principal at Rock Hill High School, Ahl II says he tries to apply the same set of standards to his students, but with less military-like intensity.

John Genrich, a Denver pediatrician who served with Ahl, said he was respected among his Air Force peers because “he doesn’t embellish things. You know where he is coming from every time.”

That’s one reason, Genrich said, Ahl became a colonel before others did. “He played by the rules and didn’t cheat.”

Ahl’s meticulous nature comes through in every thing he does, Genrich said, whether it was perfectly timing the flights of vintage prop-driven aircraft and current jets over the Air Force Academy stadium for football games or taking a plane up himself. “That’s the way he is, the way he has lived his life,” Genrich said.

Underneath his by-the-book exterior, the senior Ahl has a great sense of humor – and he hasn’t been afraid to occasionally let it slip into his classroom lectures.

Once, while lecturing on the War of 1812, Ahl asked his class who the U.S. was fighting. When he got some blank stares, he said it’s all in the song – Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans.” The enemy was the British.

Ahl kept singing the song, even the verse of: “We fired our cannon 'til the barrel melted down. So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round. We filled his head with cannon balls, and powdered his behind. And when we touched the powder off, the gator lost his mind.”

A student, Ahl remembers, asked, “could you really fire an alligator?”

Music has always been one of Ahl’s passions. As a student at Flaget High School in Louisville, he formed a rock ‘n’ roll group with his friends called the “Kool Kats.” The group gained some fame around the city, singing the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and the Diamonds. His favorite song was “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck,” by Elvis. Ever the showman, Ahl would throw plastics rings to the girls in the audience.

The group was good enough, Ahl said, to be booked as the opening act at Louisville’s Memorial Coliseum for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The rock ‘n’ roll legends died in an airplane crash about a week before the concert in February 1959. The concert went on without them and the Kool Kats played longer that night, Ahl said.

Throughout his tenure at Northwestern, Ahl used music, computers, chess, golf, helicopters, and even the Wii to get students interested in ROTC.

The four-year program includes instruction in aviation history, the science of flight, global cultural awareness and cadet corp management. Cadet Natalie Rogers said the variety of offerings may initially attract students, but what keeps them coming back is a desire to be part of the ROTC family.

Creating that environment, Ozzie Ahl II said, is what makes the difference in education today.

“It’s harder with today’s students,” he said. “It’s all about relationships.

“ROTC is an opportunity to learn leadership skills, push themselves and be part of a group. Kids involved in schools are usually more successful,” said Ozzie Ahl II.

Over the next two weeks, the senior Ahl will pack decades of memories from his Northwestern office. He declined to pick favorite students, noting he has reveled in the success of each cadet.

Two events are among his favorites. One was when four Northwestern students were selected in 2010 by the National Science Center to tell defense contractors and military leaders how the center’s lessons in math and science worked during a Armed Forces Communications and Electronics luncheon in Washington, D.C.

The second was a presentation Northwestern cadets made on having an outgoing personality. The Air Force’s Air University filmed the presentation to train others in 1992.

Among the pictures waiting to be packed are two featuring both of the Bush presidents. One, by Herald photographer Andy Burriss, shows Ahl standing next to then-presidential candidate George W. Bush. Ahl is holding a picture of himself standing next to Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush.

Burriss’ photo was taken during a campaign stop at Northwestern.

Ahl arranged to have his picture taken with George W. Bush, instructing Burriss to be ready when the time came. When a Secret Service agent yelled, “Are you, Andy?,” the crowd parted to show Ahl and the junior Bush waiting for him.

It wasn’t that way, however, when the first photo was taken. Ahl was at Maxwell Air Force Base when President George Bush visited. The Montgomery mayor kept badgering Ahl to have his photo taken with the president.

Ahl declined, saying that wasn’t his thing.

But when he heard a commanding voice say, “Ahl, come have your picture made,” he complied. After all, the by-the-book Ahl couldn’t refuse an order from his commander-in-chief.

VIDEO: Ahl reflets on his Kool Kats days

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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