Tools to pencils: Airman makes career a work of art

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Holly Mansfield
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
"I remember the chief coming up and telling me to draw him a picture of a rooster for our unit symbol. He knew I could draw so he knew I would get the job done," reminisced veteran Airman 3rd Class Terry Lee, now base operations support illustrator.

"I felt like I was contributing more and part of the team when he asked me to draw the symbol and some other posters and signs for him."

In March of 1962, just a few weeks after turning 18, Lee stepped off the bus at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, with the hopes of being an Airman. What happened in the years after would make a small town boy into an Airman who could not only turn a wrench but also draw his way into moments of American history.

When Lee was 15-years-old his next door neighbor, Burbon Lewis, who would later marry his sister, became his hero. Lewis left for Japan as an Airman in the Air Force. 

"I knew his brother," said Lee. "He was always that guy that when people asked 'Where's your brother?' he would say that he is in the Air Force. I had seen photos of him in his uniform and when he came home I thought this guy was a big shot. When you are a kid you have to have a hero. It doesn't matter if it is Roy Rogers, Gene Autry or even Burbon Lewis. The military was a big deal back then. He was the only reason I joined the Air Force. I wanted to emulate him."

Quickly after high school, Lee enlisted into the Air Force to follow in the footsteps of his hero. He remembers having a high sense of duty but with his humor and sarcasm, sometimes breaking the rules was a way to make the day a little more exciting.

"I remember my first night in basic training," said Lee. "The drill instructor said that he didn't want anyone walking around the barracks bare footed. The next thing you know I was walking around bare footed."

"We had floors where you could look down and see yourself in them so if you walked around with no shoes on you would leave foot prints on the floor."
"He walked over and stepped on my foot and got in my face ... I never did that ever again."

Lee graduated from basic training, went to technical school and then moved his way to his first duty station at McCoy Air Force Base, Orlando, Florida. He was a mechanic ensuring aircraft were mission ready.

For a small town boy from Nashville, Tennessee, standing next to a B-52 Stratofortress was a new experience. At that point in his life the only machinery he had laid his hands on was a 1947 Chevrolet.

"Here I was a kid from Tennessee," Lee remembered. "Next thing you know I'm standing next to a B-52 bomber. It was a pretty good feeling. Just thinking, 'I'm allowed to work on this thing?'"

Along with his duties as an aircraft maintainer, Lee was noticed early on for his gift of drawing. Lee was often asked to draw signs and posters for his unit.

"Our chief knew that I could draw," Lee said. "He would come to me to draw him signs or posters for different things that were going on. He knew I could do it so he utilized my talent so we didn't have to go to an outside agency."

His skills were quickly put to the test when the Cuban Missile Crisis was initiated in Oct. 1962.

"We were sitting in our day room as a unit in the barracks and saw President Kennedy come on the television talking about what was going on. It wasn't too long after that when we were in red alert and the base was filled with literally thousands of Army, Marines and everyone else. The Cuban Missile Crisis had started. We then started working 24-hours and had aircraft flying all day long," said Lee.

Due to the location of his base, Lee remembers being busy not only maintaining aircraft and drawing posters but also becoming a leader in organizing living quarters for incoming troops.

He remembered when a gunnery sergeant came to him and they had to work together to place incoming Marines in the barracks. 

"With everyone at our base it presented a logistics problem as far as where are we going to put all of these guys," he explained. "In my barracks I was a dorm chief so here I was telling a gunnery sergeant what to do. It felt good to work with them. It was a pretty big deal helping coordinate all of that."

After the crisis was over, Lee went back to his normal duties of maintenance and drawing. When his four years of being in the military was coming to an end, because of personal beliefs, Lee decided to separate from the Air Force.

Fresh out of the military and with grease from the B-52s still on his hands, Lee went to work for the local airlines for 10 years. He then transitioned to working as a contractor for the base operations support at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.

As base support, Lee spent a year washing C-130Js and then moved to being an illustrator at Wall Studio, where he has worked for 18 years, to use his gift of drawing to make graphs, illustrative posters and informational pictures for units and leaders on base.

"When I started here, I started on the ground floor," said Lee. "I had some experience in the Air Force doing artwork by hand. I was a pretty good artist so it was a pretty good transition from what I was doing to what I do now."

For almost two decades, Lee still roams the halls of Wall Studio doing what he does best; drawing his way into his co-worker's hearts ... with a little sarcastic joke here and there, of course.

Fifty-two years after stepping off the bus at Lackland AFB, Lee, with the same sense of humor and sarcasm is still an Airman at heart.

"He has a very dry sense of humor but that helps when he is interacting with the customers," said Tanya Mullen, base operations support customer service clerk and Lee's niece.

Performing to the best of his abilities has been a priority for Lee. Lee explained that whether it's repairing a B-52 or engraving a name tag, Lee says that he strives to make every product the best.

"It is nice working with him here," said Mullen. "He always gets everything done on time and to the best of his abilities. The customers are always satisfied with his work. It is also nice to have him here as family but also as someone who helped teach me my job. He always helps me whenever he can and gives me advice when I need it."

"It was a job that had to be done," said Lee. "I've never been in combat but I can imagine it's the same. When you are faced with a job you have to do it. I had a sense of duty and thought we might be going to war. We are always going to have Airmen like myself who have a sense of duty and feel like they are doing an important job."