Note: this article is the second in a three-part series about the closing of Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill., 20 years ago and what it has meant to the nearby Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL). Part 1 reviews the genesis of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC); Part 2 describes the challenges of former Chanute employees who took new positions at CERL; and Part 3 recaps some of CERL’s later research supporting the BRAC process, environmental issues at shuttered bases, and property transfers. This article first appeared in the Dec. 11, 2013 issue of the ERDC Information Bulletin.
RANTOUL, Ill. - September 30 marked 20 years since Chanute Air Force Base closed its doors as a result of the first round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) announced in 1988. Just 15 miles from Champaign in Rantoul, Ill., the base had been open since 1917 when it was built to train the nation’s first airmen to fight in World War I. Between the time of the BRAC announcement until a few months after the 1993 closing, more than 50 of the base’s displaced employees accepted positions at CERL.
Melissa Suits, now a management assistant in the Management Integration Office, originally worked at CERL during the early 1980s in the former Facilities Division headed by Ed Lotz. After stopping out for a couple of years with the birth of her daughter, she went to work at Chanute’s Missile School. Her final position at the base was in administration for the Inspector General’s office.
“It was a great place to work and it made you feel like part of a family, partly because so many military didn’t have any other family there,” Suits said. “We were all very close in the office and helped each other out – I remember right before we closed, several of us were scrubbing woodwork and floors because we wanted the Commanding General to get a good review and be able to choose his assignment after he left Chanute.”
When Suits realized she was not getting job interviews through the Priority Placement Program (PPP), she visited the human resources office and discovered her employment code had an error, making her ineligible for many of the positions available at other federal agencies. After correcting that and sending out her resume to several places, she was hired as a term employee at CERL. When her term appointment ended, she worked briefly for the local U.S. Geological Survey but “I knew I wanted to go back to CERL – it was such a friendly atmosphere and a fun place to work.”
Kathy Lee started working at Chanute right out of high school. Like Suits, she took time out of her career to be a stay-at-home mom, 12 years in her case. She returned to the base as an accounting technician and logged a total of 13 years with the Air Force before coming to CERL in 1992.
“What I remember is that it was sort of a culture shock coming here with all the technology,” said Lee, who is currently fleet manager with the USACE Logistics Activity. “At Chanute, it seemed that almost everything was obsolete by the time we got it and, for example, we had six people in one room sharing one computer. Then I came to CERL where everyone had a computer on their desk. Even the telephone system was considerably more sophisticated. So it all proved a little daunting in the beginning.”
Lee also struggled with the new acronyms she encountered at the lab. “I worked for Cal Corbin and he wanted me to go to all the staff meetings to take notes. I didn’t know what most of the acronyms meant so I just had to write up the notes and then give them to Cal to let him make sense out of it.” However, she noted, after a few weeks she settled in and everything started to seem normal.
Suits echoed the sharp contrast between information technology at Chanute and CERL. “At the base, we didn’t have the better things. We had computers but they weren’t networked and we didn’t have email. CERL had more money and was much more forward in using technology,” she said, adding that one of her first challenges was in navigating the newly launched Corps of Engineers Financial Management System.
Underdeveloped computer skills almost prevented Sandy Bantz from finding a position at CERL, having interviewed for several and not being selected. But then the PPP, which can fund retraining for displaced employees, paid for her to attend Parkland Community College. There, she acquired skills in desktop publishing that helped her land a job at the lab as an editorial assistant.
“Once I was at CERL, I found out they would pay for me to continue my education,” Bantz said. However, in the year and a half before she could re-enroll at Parkland, a curriculum change had placed the emphasis on graphics and not on desktop publishing. “I had no intention of going into graphics,” she noted. Later, during CERL’s reorganization in 1995, she was able to put her new skills into use as she was reassigned to a downsized graphics office. “It’s the best thing I ever did – I definitely enjoy it.” In addition to being a one-person graphics department under ACE-IT, Bantz provides photographic, print and other services, and manages the mailroom contract.
CERL action officer John Mudrick left his job at Arnold Air Force Station, Tenn., to take a position at Chanute just one year before the BRAC announcement. “If I had known they were on the chopping block, I would’ve stayed in Tennessee,” he said, adding “But then I wouldn’t have met my wife, who I married a few months before the base closed, or all the great CERLites who became my new co-workers."
During his time in Rantoul, Mudrick served as recreation center director, recreation services chief and then as chief of Morale, Welfare and Recreation. In this final position, he spent considerable time in the last few months closing facilities and organizing going-away parties and retirement ceremonies. In addition, he said, “We still had major events going on and had to offer recreational opportunities to those still there.”
With closure looming, Mudrick sought employment locally because his wife’s job was going well and they did not wish to move. Through PPP, he was hired at CERL as a division coordinator working for Alan Moore. “It was a challenge to learn the Army way versus the Air Force way. As far as regulations, the CERL culture seemed a little lax compared to the Air Force, which was much more rigid and strict. It may have been partly because of the different mission here or the fact the lab is mostly civilian with fewer military protocols,” he said.
Mudrick also felt pressure in needing to prove his work ethic in the new environment and reestablish himself as a competent employee. In 2000, he deployed to Japan for three years and upon his return, discovered his efforts had paid off as he was eagerly welcomed back to the CERL family.
The four Chanute alumni interviewed for this article represent just a small sample of the valuable human assets CERL gained as a result of the base’s shuttering. Similarly, as that door closed for them, another one opened in Champaign with the potential for new career paths and advancement.
“I was really grateful to be offered the opportunity to come to CERL and I enjoy every day at work,” said Lee. “It’s a nice work atmosphere and there are lots of good people.”