JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas –
It was 1965 and she was in her early 20’s working as a city employee in the welfare department when she saw an opportunity to work for the federal government as an Air Force civilian.
During that time, Mary O. Price saw limited options for women in the workplace; but several months after applying, she got the call she hoped for and was hired as a general schedule two, or GS-2. Little did she know her career would extend more than a half-century.
“I was excited, not only for a new opportunity but for more pay,” Price said.
Her federal service career began as a clerk typist at the former Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, working in an air terminal unit.
“We used key punch processors for aircraft manifests,” Price said, recalling the verification process for cargo, specifically hazardous materials. “I remember using a teleprinter to send and receive messages to and from bases so they would know when aircraft departed or arrived.”
Teleprinters in the 1960’s were similar to using manual typewriters while keypunch machines produced braille-like cards. Both have very different functionalities than today’s smartphones or tablets.
During the Vietnam era in the mid-1960s, Kelly Air Force Base was an air materiel port that began supporting Southeast Asia on a 24-hour basis, supplying parts within the United States and overseas.
After a few years of working in San Antonio, Price took a short break before accepting another federal service job at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas. After getting married to an Air Force non-commissioned officer who was a KC-135 aircraft maintenance instructor, her family got orders to Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas.
Sheppard provided technical training for many of the Air Force’s newest Airmen. Price recalled her leadership calling upon her often as a subject matter expert to train and mentor technical school students in the administrative career field.
Although Price didn’t serve on active duty she attributes a lot of her success to learning and understanding military lingo.
“My focus has always been supporting the troops, knowing how to speak their language, and understanding the acronyms,” Price said. “I’ve always felt like I’m part of their team.”
In 1973, Price returned to San Antonio working at Randolph Air Force Base. As a wife and mother, she balanced home life with two children while attending night and weekend classes. In 1985, she accomplished a significant milestone when she completed her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts at Southwest Texas University, in San Marcos, Texas.
Price says that one of the most memorable experiences of her career was crossing paths with Brig. Gen. Kenneth R. Fleenor, for whom an auditorium is named at Randolph Air Force Base.
According to his Air Force biography, Fleenor’s aircraft was shot down on Dec. 17, 1967, and he was captured over North Vietnam near Hanoi where he remained a prisoner of war for more than five years.
After repatriation in 1973, he held several positions on Randolph Air Force Base, was promoted to brigadier general in 1978, and retired from the Air Training Command in 1980.
Price is grateful for her opportunities to meet senior leaders, especially General Fleenor. Although selfies didn’t exist in the 1970’s, her memories of planning briefings and ensuring protocol for senior leader dignitaries, including Fleenor, have stayed with her. Every time there’s a briefing in the Fleenor Auditorium, it’s a joyful reminder for Price that she is part of history.
On Jan. 10, more than 100 civilian and military Airmen and her family gathered to honor Price’s 52 years of service and celebrate her retirement from the Air Force.
Although Price didn’t give much thought to pursuing a career expanding a half-century, she loved the jobs she held and the Airmen she met. That’s what kept her going.
Chief Master Sgt. Clinton Wilkerson, her friend and the presiding official of Price’s retirement ceremony, described Price as someone who has seen the evolution of the Air Force.
“She’s walked the path of the past and is telling those Airmen’s stories today, in the present,” said Wilkerson.
“For Mary it has always been about the Airmen. It’s always been about her young troops,” Wilkerson continued. “Her leadership called upon her to lead those Airmen--and she did just that.”
Price has spent the past 20 years at the Air Force’s Personnel Center working in human resources, and although it’s a bittersweet departure, Price says she’ll be nearby and ready to visit the Airmen she’s helped lead.
As she said her final goodbye to the service that she’s loved for so many years, she left behind one final bit of advice to her Airmen, affectionately known as “kiddos.”
“We are here to support each other,” Price said. “Treat everyone the way you wish to be treated and pass on your knowledge. Keep doing what you’re doing, it’s important.”