Leon Southern was born 10 miles south of Liberal, Kan., in the tiny town of Baker, Okla.
He enlisted in the Air Force after registering for the draft at the age of 18 in 1948.
“I was in the Air Force for 21 years, 6 months and 5 days,” he said. “But I get paid for 22.”
Throughout his time in the Air Force, Southern was stationed in three counties including the United States as well as Texas, Okla., and North and South Dakota.
Southern married his first wife soon after enlisting, and remembers every step of his military journey. After joining, he was quickly promoted, told to take a physical and the rest is history.
He remembers the day a recruiter came to pick him up.
“It snowed that day and I was supposed to meet him at the Post Office, but he couldn't get through,” Southern said. “He called, told me to meet him where the curve in the road was. And we headed to Amarillo.”
His next move was to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where he went through basic training. At Lackland, Southern was given three choices for school; he chose aircraft mechanics. The next step was a year and half of aircraft school at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas. Then, after six months of reciprocating engine school in Rantoul, Illinois, Southern got orders to go overseas.
When he arrived at Bentwaters Air Force Base in England, he was surprised to see only F-86 jets.
“I did not know one thing about an F-86,” he said. “While I was there, all I did was help the crew chief refuel the planes.”
Luckily, he soon was sent to Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany. There, his fifth location since enlisting, Southern spent a year and half working on Fairchild C-199 Flying Boxcars, an American military transport aircraft developed from the World War II-era.
“I worked on engines in the inspection dock,” he said.
In the years following, Southern was stationed at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla.. where he worked on B-25 and B-26 bombers as well as small T-28's, a piston-engine military trainer aircraft used by the Air Force beginning in the 1950s.
Four years later in 1955, his travels were still not over, nor was his duty to his country.
“When the time to re-enlist came up, I decided I kind of liked it and re-enlisted for six more years.”
Southern spent the next 19 years stationed at bases from San Antonio, Texas, to his least favorite - Minot, N. D. For eight years he worked as part of the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base in western South Dakota. His duties there included a role as supervisor and work on the transient alert team which is responsible for meeting the fuel, cargo and maintenance needs of the airplanes on base.
Page 2 of 2 - Southern's last job in the service was doing van configuration for the missile field in Ellsworth, S.D.
He retired around 1974 but never really stopped working. Even after 6 months in the hospital recovering from back surgery for a dropped vertebrae pressing on his sciatic nerve, Southern was back at it, working at the airport in Liberal as an aircraft mechanic. After a stint at an airport out side of Phoenix, Ariz. Doing airplane maintenance, he went back home to be near his parents in Liberal.
In his own words, he was tired of pounding the concrete and picked up and came home.
But even then, he yearned to be working.
“I was at home and had everything fixed up and done and I liked to have driven myself crazy,” he said.
Then, came a new line of work for Southern who was by now in his 50s. He began driving a bus for First Baptist Pre-School and Daycare Center in Liberal. And he loved it.
He fondly remembers the children calling him Mr. Leon and has special memories of the children he came to know. He would even bring his co-workers a single red rose with a note on their birthday- a simple sentiment that sums up the 82-year-old veterans personality.
Although Southern has only been at the Kansas Soldiers' Home in Fort Dodge for a year, he's ready to go home to his wife Cherie and their four dogs in Liberal. He chose to come to Fort Dodge when his wife could no longer take care of him following a surgery on his spinal cord. When he arrived, his right arm was numb and so swollen he couldn't even see his knuckles; but thanks to daily therapy, he can now use his hand and arm.
And that's a good thing, because as anyone whose father or grandfather worked with his hands knows, hands weathered by years of turning tiny screws and checking engines need to stay busy.
Consequently, Southern has a lot of projects to work on in his backyard shop.
“It's been good since I've been up here,” he said. “I have no qualms and the therapy has been good too.”
“But I'm hoping to go home soon and see my puppy dogs.”