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Chasing the Prize

by Mary G. Butler


For the first six months of 1954 the city of Battle Creek held its collective breath as the location of a proposed new Air Force Academy was determined by the generals and the politicians. Area residents were eager to land this prime prize, which would bring untold economic benefits to Battle Creek. They were sure that the sprawling Fort Custer facilities would be the best location in the country for the new military college. But Battle Creek faced stiff competition from other communities around the country which also wanted to host the new Academy.


The initial hearings to authorize the creation of the new Academy began in Washington in January 1954. Battle Creek’s Mayor Frank Wagner was the only local politician from around the country who was there to lobby the lawmakers.


Once the school was actually authorized, a civilian board would be selected to survey potential sites. Then Secretary of the Air Force would make the final determination.


Congressman Paul W. Shafer of Battle Creek, who was a member of the House Armed Service Committee, immediately introduced a bill to select Fort Custer as the site, but this was only one of twelve similar bills introduced by other lawmakers. The competition was expected to be fierce, because the economic and political benefits of acquiring the Academy would be enormous.


Back at home, State Senator Creighton Coleman secured the Michigan legislature’s formal endorsement of Fort Custer’s application. City and county leaders prepared for an “all-out campaign” to win the coveted designation. They had to move quickly. Once President Eisenhower signed the legislation to create the Academy, the Secretary was expected to make a final site selection within 90 days.


Battle Creek officials felt that they had a head start in one respect. Back in 1950-51 engineers had done a preliminary study of potential academy sites and had recommended that Fort Custer be strongly considered. However, at that time the Michigan location had been eliminated because the Army refused to relinquish use of Fort Custer, then used by Anti-Aircraft Artillery units.


Since then Fort Custer had been closed by the Army and the base was now available for use.


Area boosters felt they had a strong case to make, since Fort Custer met all the criteria established by Air Secretary Harold Talbot:

It is large enough.

It is near large cities, big industry, leading universities or colleges, and excellent transportation facilities.

Kellogg Field is adjacent.

The climate is idea for year round study.

Much of the land is already developed with necessary utilities.

As a bonus, Percy Jones Hospital was available nearby.


It was expected that the final project would require 10,000 to 15,000 acres of land. The Academy complex would eventually include more than $125 million dollars worth of buildings, to accommodate a student body of 2,600 and a faculty and staff of approximately 7,500 individuals. Obviously, this was a prize worth fighting for.


At the beginning of February Secretary Talbot announced he would begin a series of visits to proposed sites, beginning with San Antonio, Texas. He promised the Michigan delegation that he would also visit Fort Custer before any decision was made.


The Enquirer predicted a “slam-bang battle” ahead.


Finally, on April 2, 1954, the bill authorizing the Academy was passed by the Senate and was signed by President Eisenhower. Michigan was still considered to be a strong contender for the academy, along with locations in California, Texas, New York, Missouri, Colorado, Indiana and Illinois. Now “one of the fiercest political scrambles in years” was well and truly underway.


Air Secretary Talbot planned to appoint a five-man commission to select the site. If the commission was unanimous in its recommendation, the Air Secretary would be bound by their decision. Otherwise he was to choose one of the three locations recommended by the majority of the commission.


On April 5 Talbot made an unannounced “whirlwind inspection” of Fort Custer. After his aerial inspection, Talbot landed and spent just under two hours on the ground. As he left he told local representatives that, “This is a terrific site. It is the best that I have seen.” Local hopes rose with his comments.


The next day Talbot named the members of the commission, to be headed by Gen. Carl Spaatz, first chief of staff of the Air Force. Others members were Lt. Gen. Hubert Harmon, Virgin Hancher, president of the University of Iowa and Merrill Meigs, vice president of the Hearst Corporation. The fifth member of the commission was Brig. Gen. Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator who made the first New York to Paris flight across the Atlantic in 1927.


New criteria were also announced, all of which seemed to favor Fort Custer:

The climate has to include four seasons;

It must be near cultural institutions, near water and must include some wooded area;

It must include area suitable for development of a large airfield.


Now that the commission was named and the site visit to be scheduled in the near future, the local leaders moved into high gear. Kalamazoo and Battle Creek officials met at the Hart Hotel on April 11 to plan their “all-out campaign” to secure the Academy. A ten-man executive committee, composed of five representatives of each city, would lead the campaign. The Battle Creek contingent, which included George Price, Horace Conklin, A.E. Udell and John Carton, was chaired by Robert B. Miller, publisher of the Enquirer and News.


The first job of the local committee was to prepare a presentation piece for the site selection committee, who were expected to visit Fort Custer within a week. The local sales pitch emphasized the cooperation between the two cities, the importance of the Percy Jones facility and the strength of the academic resources available locally.


Finally, the word came that the site selection committee was planning to arrive on April 28. Since beginning their duties early in the month, the commission had already visited sites in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, California, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois. There were still more locations on their agenda after the Michigan stop.


The ground rules established by the commission stated they did not want to be entertained or have any public demonstrations during their visit.


On the visitation day official representatives of Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Marshall, were on hand at the airport to greet the commission members as they arrived at about 11 a.m. Over the course of the next two and half hours the local representatives plied the visitors with facts and figures, took them on an automobile tour of the base and fed them lunch at the Air National Guard clubhouse at the airport.


Each member of the commission received a special 65-page brochure, a portfolio of maps and aerial photographs touting the advantages of Fort Custer, describing how Michigan met each of the established site selection criteria.


Following their inspection, the five commission members boarded their plane to travel to Lexington, Kentucky, for their next visit.


The local representatives were sure that the visitors were quite impressed with Fort Custer. They stayed in town an hour longer than planned, lingering over the buffet lunch prepared by Bill Knapp to discuss the area with the local leaders. Merrill Meigs, vice president of Hearst Corporation, was heard to say that Battle Creek and Kalamazoo “have made one of the most complete presentations we have heard.” Meigs, who also served as chief of the Aircraft Division of the War Production Board in the 1940s, stressed how seriously the commission was taking its job. He told the local leaders, “We in the United States invented the airplane, and we have brought it to its present state. We won the war with the airplane and we believe that nothing is too good for the future of the Air Force.”


As the visitors flew south, the area leaders gathered for a de-briefing, assessing their chances of securing the coveted academy. They were, to a man, encouraged by what they heard from the commission. Chairman Miller felt that, “This was a very successful tour – win, lose or draw. We must keep mobilized and keep our team working.”


Follow up contacts revealed that the commission members had “displayed more than average interest” in the Fort Custer location. Local leaders were increasingly encouraged about their prospects and kept up the pressure on Michigan’s state and national leaders to advocate on their behalf. They sent a constant flow of additional information, maps and demographics to the commissioners.


On May 13 the commission members returned for a fly over look at the base. This unexpected visit only increased local confidence that Fort Custer was a serious contender in the selection sweepstakes. Battle Creek’s Congressman, Paul Shafer, continued to be a cheerleader, assuring the local committee that Fort Custer was still being actively considered.


The site selection commission had its first meeting on May 18, but did not come to a conclusion. They narrowed the field from the original 600 sites to a short list of five or seven sites, including Fort Custer. All these optimistic assessments were proudly reported to the public in the newspaper.


Rumors began circulating about potential “gifts” which might be forthcoming if the Academy came to Fort Custer, including a “big time football stadium” or a 1,000 acre tract along “one of the best trout streams in northern Michigan” for use as a wilderness retreat for Academy cadets and faculty. No formal statements were made, to avoid the appearance that supporters were trying to influence the selection commission.


On June 2 the commission was expected to make their final report. But 30 minutes before the meeting, it was suddenly cancelled without explanation. Speculation ran wild, perhaps there was no unanimous agreement on the panel or perhaps there was a last minute shift in the vote. Air Secretary Talbot promised that the decision would be announced within a couple of days. Local readers were assured that Fort Custer was still among the top five sites. Grand Rapids Representative Gerald Ford was still “optimistic” and offered to “lend his assistance” in any way he could.


Even outside of the communities involved, the selection process gripped the attention of the nation. Major newspaper columnists and public figures, including Dorothy Kilgallen, Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan, made their predictions (none mentioned Fort Custer).


The break finally came on June 3. The commission announced that they were deadlocked over three sites and the final selection would have to be made by Air Secretary Talbot. Fort Custer was not among the three, which were Alton, Illinois, Colorado Springs, or Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.


Battle Creek was devastated. Until the final announcement, prospects for Fort Custer were assumed to be exceedingly bright. To add to the confusion, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, had not been on any previous list, long or short.


Local officials, swallowing their disappointment, issued public statements praising the hard work and integrity of the commission. They consoled themselves with the belief that Fort Custer was not chosen because it was too close to Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. The cadets might have to fly directly over the two cities much of the time, which could pose safety and public relations problems for the Academy.


Robert Miller, chairman of the local committee, praised the collaborative effort of the Fort Custer supporters and expressed “new appreciation” of the importance of Fort Custer and the possibilities for future development.


Congressman Paul Shafer, who had been deeply involved in selection process, said, “By no means do I regard these efforts as lost labor. I believe that the …nationwide publicity … will assure further and fruitful consideration … of permanent and effective utilization of both Fort Custer and Percy Jones Army Hospital. A number of new possibilities for use of these installations are now under consideration. I am by no means discouraged over the prospect for the effective utilization of these facilities in the near future.”


In a final postscript, which received only passing mention in the local press, Colorado Springs, Colorado, was finally selected as the Air Force Academy site. Air Secretary Talbot made the announcement on June 24, 1954, after a six-month long process which touched over 600 communities across the nation, and galvanized the citizens of Battle Creek to work together to promote their community to the nation.


As a Battle Creek Enquirer editorial said, “There are the things which we in this community can say to ourselves, with pride and satisfaction…. For here again, and to a degree unsurpassed in this community, has been demonstrated the ability of dedicated citizens to unite in a common purpose, extending over the years. Out of that experience has come a better awareness of the importance of unity and unremitting hard work in advancing community needs and causes.”


These lessons can still resonate in our community today.