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Retirement nears for ‘best of friends’ who devoted 80 years to mission

By Robert Goetz | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | Jan. 9, 2020


Retired senior NCOs Tony Williams and Marilyn Cunningham first crossed paths when they were instructors at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, nearly 30 years ago.

Although they became the “best of friends right off the bat,” according to Cunningham, it wasn’t until later – at a party – that she discovered her good friend was also her secret admirer.

“Each of the girls invited a guy to the party,” Cunningham recalled, “and I introduced my friend Linda to Tony. She told me he was head over heels in love with me. I had no idea.”

So maybe it wasn’t a matter of mutual love at first sight, but it was just a matter of time before the best of friends became husband and wife.

Nearly 25 years have passed since Cunningham and Williams exchanged marriage vows, but before they reach their silver anniversary this year, they will share another significant milestone.

At 2 p.m. Jan. 31 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph’s Kendrick Club, Cunningham and Williams will be honored at a ceremony marking their second retirement – this time from civil service after long, rewarding military careers.         

Both of them are finishing their civilian careers as acquisition program managers at Air Education and Training Command’s Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection Directorate, where they oversee contracts for various geographical areas. Their stint at the directorate marked the first time they have worked together since they served as technical training instructors at Sheppard in the early 1990s.

“We end as we began,” Cunningham said. “It came full circle.”      

Cunningham, who rose to the rank of chief master sergeant, is a native of Belleville, Alabama, but she and her family left Alabama – which she still considers home – when she was 13 and settled in Akron, Ohio. She said she “knew nothing of the military” when she first talked to an Air Force recruiter in 1980 while she was attending Denison University in Ohio.

“I was in college, running out of money and needed money to continue my education,” she said.

Just three weeks after talking to the recruiter, Cunningham started basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and soon entered the civil engineering career field when she attended technical school for training in electronics.

Williams had his eyes on a military career at an early age, no doubt influenced by family members who served. He graduated from Solomon C. Johnson High School in Thunderbolt, Georgia, in 1976 and enlisted in the Air Force “right away.”

“I always had a desire to serve in the military,” he said. “I decided I would do that when I was in the seventh grade.”

Like his future wife, Williams chose the civil engineering career field.

“I had three career choices – rear gunner for the B-52, missile support and civil engineering,” he said. “I took electronics in high school and liked it, so I chose civil engineering.”

Williams separated from the Air Force in 1982, but returned to active duty two years later as an electronic control specialist with the 14th Civil Engineer Squadron at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.

After serving in various CE positions, Cunningham’s and Williams’ lives finally converged in 1992 at the 3770th Technical Training Group at Sheppard Air Force Base.

“I was instructing security alarms and Tony was in electronics,” Cunningham said. “We were training each other.”

After their wedding in May 1995, Williams continued in his position as technical training instructor at Sheppard, but Cunningham moved on to Osan Air Base, Korea, as NCO in charge of alarms maintenance with the 51st Civil Engineer Squadron.

However, they were reunited about a year later at Edwards Air Force Base, California, where Cunningham served as zone manager for the 795th CES and Williams as NCO in charge of the alarm element for the 95th Civil Engineer Group.

Cunningham and Williams feel fortunate that their separations were few when they were on active duty.

The toughest separation was during Cunningham’s assignment to Korea for a year, when her 1-year-old son’s only knowledge of her was through a photograph of her.

“But we were fortunate – we were only separated three times,” she said. “Separation is hard, and so is reintegration. A lot of couples get divorced, but we were fortunate not to be a casualty of that.”

Cunningham and Williams have earned numerous awards and decorations during their military and civilian careers, but they both point to their promotions to chief master sergeant and senior master sergeant, respectively, as moments they are especially proud of.

Cunningham said her greatest accomplishment was pulling together a dysfunctional team at Edwards Air Force Base consisting of carpenters and other tradesmen.

“They weren’t used to discipline, so they didn’t like it,” she said. “But I succeeded by being fair and following the rules. When people know what is required, it makes a big difference. To see that change was a wonderful thing.”

One of Williams’ most worthwhile assignments was serving as electronics superintendent and liaison between the U.S. State Department and the Egyptian air force.

“I was able to see how America relates to its foreign allies,” he said. “Our objective was to show them how to save money and get them to work as efficiently as we do.”

The couple now look forward to a retirement filled with cruises, jazz concerts, theater events, volunteer work and fishing, one of Williams’ favorite diversions.

“He loves to fish, and I despise fishing,” Cunningham said, “but I like to sit by the water and read my books or listen to jazz. Then I’m happy as a pig in slop.”   

Both take pride in their service to country and cherish the many friends they have made along the way.

“As I reflect back, it’s hard to believe almost 40 years have passed since I first set foot on Lackland Air Force Base as a naïve, fresh-face member of the Air Force’s newest Basic Military Training ‘Rainbow Flight,’” Cunningham said. “What began as a four-year enlistment experiment gradually blossomed into a wonderful career and a lifelong commitment to the Air Force. Along the way, I was blessed with a wonderful daughter, an awesome son and a loving husband.” 

For Williams, serving in the Air Force was the fulfillment of a dream.

“To be in the military and wearing the uniform I experienced a wide range of emotions from the pride of being in uniform and serving my country to belonging to a very elite brotherhood,” he said.

Returning to the Air Force after his initial separation changed the course of his life for the better, Williams said.

“I guess God had a plan for me, because it was then that I met my loving wife Marilyn and started our family,” he said. “Two of my greatest accomplishment in my life were marrying the woman of my dreams and serving in the Air Force, both on active duty and as a civilian.”