Warner Robins turns 70; pioneers share stories of the past
The Macon Telegraph
WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — Pat Polk, 76, leaned in close to see if she could pick out her father from a sea of people in a black-and-white photograph taken Aug. 30, 1945.
“I need a magnifying glass to find him,” Polk said of identifying Graham Hamrick in the photo of the Engine Repair Section of the Maintenance Division at Warner Robins Air Technical Service Command.
Hamrick came to what is now Warner Robins in 1941 to work at what is now Robins Air Force Base. Polk said her family had to wait a couple of years for housing to be constructed before they could come, too. She later worked in civil service at the base, and two of her daughters now work there.
Polk was among more than 250 people who gathered at the Wellston Center on Wednesday for the 70th Anniversary Pioneer Breakfast hosted by the Warner Robins Heritage Society. The photo containing her father was prominently displayed.
The Heritage Society is in the middle of an oral history project to preserve the city’s history. The breakfast honored residents of 50 years or more and commemorated the renaming of Wellston to Warner Robins, which occurred on March 5, 1943.
The event included remarks by a host of dignitaries, including Mayor Chuck Shaheen, Gov. Nathan Deal through a video played at the breakfast, and a spokesperson for 8th District U.S. Rep. Austin Scott.
Those attending also watched excerpts from some of the oral histories already captured for the project and listened to the Heart of Georgia Barbershop Chorus. Some joined with vocalist Dell Cook when she sang, “Georgia On My Mind.” The song, which was recorded by Georgia native Ray Charles and others, became the official state song in 1979.
Col. Mitchel Butikofer, commander of the 78th Air Base Wing and installation commander at Robins, shared formal remarks as well as personal reflections.
“Your effect on our family has been very deep and very wide,” said Butikofer, who noted his family will remain in Warner Robins when he leaves for his next assignment in order for his twins to graduate from Warner Robins High School.
“They want to be Demons for the rest of their lives,” he said.
He also shared a brief history of the base.
“Your stories, your history are important to all of us because they are going to forge our history,” Butikofer told those assembled.
Art Howard, president of the Heritage Society and a retired Air Force C-130 navigator, said he learned much about Warner Robins through the project, including that some prisoners of war were encamped in the area and there was once a great escape from what was then a two-cell jail.
Howard, who wore a navigator’s jumpsuit from the World War II era, also took the opportunity to plug a group working to save Rumble Academy, which housed the first Warner Robins High School. The building, which was erected in 1945, is scheduled to be demolished in the summer of 2014.
“That wasn’t in the script,” he said.
The event also gave people an opportunity to share a little about their own histories.
Marvis Roberts led the first group of black Boy Scouts to spend the night on base at the Jamboree, a gathering of thousands of members of the Boy Scouts of America.
Among those young boys was state Rep. Willie Talton, R-Warner Robins, and Daron Lee, a chemist for Pabst Blue Ribbon, where Perdue Farms is now located. Lee, who later served as a quality engineer for Miller Brewing Co., is the father of Warner Robins Councilman Daron D. Lee and Warner Robins Redevelopment Authority executive director Gary D. Lee.
“Most of the boys made great success,” said Roberts, who worked on base for more than 34 years and later for Specialty Services for 18 years. “I just can’t name them all right now. It’s been so long.
“But I do have pictures of all of them. They were a great bunch of boys. All of them turned out to be very good fellows,” he said.
Some of those boys also later played semi-pro baseball.
“Most of the fellows there, after the Boy Scout troop, we organized a semi-pro baseball team and called it: Warner Robins Jets,” Roberts said. “They played in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina. Most everywhere in Georgia. They was rated No. 4 in the state of Georgia.”
Dorothy Jackson, 74, was born with the help of a midwife at home. Her home was located where the base is now. She remembered going to school at Union Grove Missionary Baptist Church before Wellston native Pearl Stephens convinced the school board to build the first tax-supported school in the black community.
Jackson said she’s lived here most of her life — except for two years when she went to New Jersey to be with her mom who had moved in with her sister because of declining health.
“I knew I had to get back to Warner Robins,” Jackson said.
Former Mayor Henrietta McIntyre shared about leaving the “beautiful mountains and the beautiful snow” of Lenoir, N.C., to come to Middle Georgia in August 1944.
Arriving in Macon on a cattle car in a downpour, McIntyre said she wasn’t happy.
“It rained for a week, and I cried for a week. I thought as soon as the weather stops, I’m out of here,” she said.
But what she had thought would be one week turned into a job on the then new military base in Warner Robins. In time, she created careers both private and political. “You couldn’t drag me out of here now,” she said.