I’ve been with the Omaha District a little more than four years. I knew when taking the job that North Dakota was in the District’s area of responsibility and I would likely find connections to my family.
North Dakota is where my parents and grandparents grew up. My dad’s great grandfather moved to Garrison, North Dakota from Iowa in 1901 to farm and my great-grandfather worked on Missouri River riverboats until traffic ended in 1926. In fact, I was born at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, which is part of the District’s Military Construction Program.
My journey to work for the Omaha District is like a “degrees of separation” game. In 2006, I worked for the Air Force Weather Agency at Offutt Air Force Base and my first duty was to send the press release announcing the Omaha District had awarded the contract to build the new AFWA headquarters. Our current District Commander, Col. Joel R. Cross, (a major at the time) was the deputy district commander and attended the ground breaking ceremony.
When the Air Force began downsizing, I left AFWA and went to work at the corporate headquarters for the construction company that was building the AFWA Headquarters. A few years later, I found myself working for the Omaha District.
On a side note, the construction company also was a primary contractor in constructing the Garrison Dam, the town of Riverdale, North Dakota, and missile silos for Ellsworth Air Force Base.
I recently learned that my boss and I also have a “North Dakota Connection”. Her grandmother immigrated to the same town in North Dakota where my mother and her parents grew up. The town is small. Its current population is less than 650 people. No one knew each other but what a small world!
Always one to look for these connections, within a few months, I discovered that one of our district architects went to North Dakota State University (where my dad went to school) and we both have relatives (though not the same one) who were inducted into the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame.
My grandfather, Clifford “Cliff” H. Beeks, was a pilot in North Dakota just before World War II. He enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1942, received formal training and returned to North Dakota in 1944 where he began working as an Air Lift pilot, which led to his own business that he operated until his death in 1980. He was inducted into the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame in 2005.
In 1952, Cliff began providing aerial spraying services and moved his airplanes to what is now the Washburn Municipal Airport. The airfield was originally constructed as an emergency landing field in 1940. The airport is where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers landed its DC-3 airplane on the grass runway during the Garrison Dam’s construction.
Washburn’s airport had the longest runway between Bismarck and Minot Air Force Base. So, in June 1953 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to Riverdale to dedicate the Garrison Dam, Cliff thought several airplanes would be landing there because the runway was long enough to handle large aircraft that might be coming for the dedication. He had his sons set up coffee, rolls, and pop for the people he anticipated would be flying in. He had made arrangements with a local car dealer to provide cars for people to rent to drive to the dam.
On the morning of the dedication, Washburn was socked in with fog and no planes could land. My dad and his brothers sat at the beacon tower with members of the National Guard drinking pop and watching for people to fly in. Only one person landed at the Washburn Airport. President Eisenhower and his group landed at Bismarck and the boys watched the motorcade speed past the airport on its way to the dam.
This past summer, while visiting the District’s Riverdale Project office at the Garrison Dam, I saved the government some money and stayed with my aunt in Washburn. As we visited each evening, we discussed people I met who work for the District at Riverdale and Williston who had flown with my grandfather and my uncle.
My uncle joined my grandfather’s business in 1969 and began purchasing it while working as a flight instructor, aircraft mechanic, aircraft inspector and crop sprayer.
It turned out; I wasn’t the first in my family to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During the 1980’s my uncle, William “Bill” A. Beeks, flew for the USACE and Civil Air Patrol assisting with gathering counts of campers and boats on Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River, reporting when boaters were stranded or in distress, as well as providing surveillance for storm damage, range fires and ice jams.
Sadly, my uncle died on August 3, 2006, when his 1967 single-engine Piper Pawnee clipped a power line while he was spraying crops southeast of Underwood.
Following my visit to North Dakota, I began the process to nominate my uncle for induction to the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame. As I prepared the application, I spoke to two current District employees, Jeff Keller and Charles Sorensen, and Roy Snyder, retired Lake Sakakawea Project Manager. Snyder not only flew with Bill as part of his job but also as a student. He shared personal memories of Bill as well as my grandfather with me.
Sometimes it seems people think those of us with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are disconnected from the river and its history.
For me, I have found a connection to and through the Missouri River that runs deep and as wide as it once meandered.
It all comes back to the idea that if we take time to talk and listen a little, we can find someone, or something, that connects us and gives us common ground.