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U.S. Air Force Helicopter History
Kenneth L. Spaur, USAR (Retired)
August 2, 1932 – January 21, 2021
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Kenneth Lee Spaur, 88, passed away on January 21, 2021 in Federal Way, Washington from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Ken was born August 2, 1932 to Jacob and Geneva Spaur. He was born at home in Dent, Colorado, which is now part of the town of Milliken, outside of Greely in northeast Colorado.
Dent lay along the Union Pacific rail lines not far from the South Platte River. His maternal grandfather was section chief for the railroad in the area.
Ken was the oldest of five children born to Jacob and Geneva, three boys and two girls.
Their family was poor. It was the Great Depression, and Jacob was a farmer and an alcoholic with a wild streak. The family moved often when Ken was young, and he did not like it. They moved seeking work for Jacob. Ken remembers moving a couple times before even starting school.
He started grade school in Milliken. In the middle of second grade, they moved 12 miles south to Platteville, Colorado. The family bought 15 acres in Platteville to farm potatoes.
It was just one lifetime ago but a different world of overalls and outhouses and party line telephones–if your family even had one. Ken could remember electricity finally coming to the farm and seeing the billowing storms of the Dust Bowl while walking home from school.
In the middle of fourth grade, World War II started. The family moved to southern California to work in the aircraft industry. They landed in Whittier, California because Ken’s Aunt Margaret lived there with her husband who owned a combination auto repair and machine shop. Both Jacob and Geneva worked for Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft, which would later be known as Convair. Consolidated was famous for building World War II planes such as the PBY Catalina flying boat and the B-24 Liberator bomber.
The family continued to move often in southern California, from Whittier to Fullerton to North Long Beach. Ken attended fifth, sixth, and seventh grades in Long Beach.
By the end of his seventh grade, the manufacturing work in the area was winding down after the end of the war. The family moved to Johnstown, Colorado, not far from Dent and Milliken and Platteville, to return to farming. After living in California, Colorado’s cold wintery weather no longer suited Jacob’s health. After less than two years back in Colorado, the family returned to California, this time to King City in the Salinas Valley near Monterey. Jacob worked for a company drilling wells; Geneva served as a practical nurse in the local hospital.
Ken attended King City Union High School. While in high school, he ran the 220 and pole vaulted on the track team. He also worked at a general store where the owner had his own photography darkroom. There, Ken began his lifelong interest in photography, buying his own supplies and contributing photos to the school newspaper and yearbook.
King City was home to a naval air base where Ken would go to watch old aircraft like Stearmans and Pipers and Cessna’s fly.
Ken graduated from King City Union High School in 1950. That summer, he worked driving a tanker for the forest service, no doubt feeding his love of the mountains. He also watched his classmates in the local guard unit march off to Korean War training.
Ken knew that he could postpone being drafted for the war through school deferment. If he was going to enter the military, he wanted to do it on his own terms.
For college, he decided to return to Fullerton in southern California and attend Fullerton Junior College, now known as Fullerton College. His cousins had previously studied there, and he could stay with Aunt Margret while attending school. He took mostly science classes, although he did fit in one photography class. He also joined the Hornet Knights service club for projects within the school.
The summer after his first year at Fullerton, he staffed the Chews Ridge Lookout in the Los Padres National Forest southeast of Monterey. During that summer a major fire burned in his district. That was when he first saw a helicopter live in operation.
While at Fullerton Junior College, Ken met and fell in love with Ann Marie “Johnnie” Mercer. They got engaged in the summer of 1952 at Chews Ridge Lookout.
MILITARY AND FAMILY YEARS
After graduating from Fullerton College in 1952, Ken received a notice to report to a physical examination for joining the Army. He and his friend Ken Gross instead volunteered for the Air Force.
Basic training for the Air Force happened at Parks Air Force Base in Pleasanton, California. While at Parks, Ken heard an announcement that cadets with college education could apply for Officer Candidate School, an accelerated program to educate officers in four months instead of the normal four years at the Air Force Academy. Ken decided to apply, in part to get out of kitchen duty (KP).
Ken did see some action in the Korean War, where during an artillery attack he quit smoking for the first time. (He’d start again in Vietnam and quit soon after.) But he had been accepted into officer training and began his pilot’s education: pre-flight, single engine propeller, single engine jet, multi-engine transports.
During a holiday break in his pilot’s training, he married Johnnie Mercer on December 26, 1954 in Whittier, California.
Towards the end of his pilot training, he was given a choice of advanced jet training or helicopter school. He chose helicopter training at San Marcos, TX. While there, he wished he could have gone with others to see the hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls.
Helicopter training led to a 20-year career as an Air Force rescue pilot with tours in Korea and Vietnam. During his service, Ken was awarded numerous medals and commendations including the Silver Star, the armed forces’ third highest decoration for valor in combat; the Meritorious Service Medal for significant non-combat achievement; and 11 Air Medals for heroism while participating in aerial flight.
Military life meant moving the family frequently, something Ken never liked. But it was also the opportunity to live in Okinawa and Hawaii and Tennessee and Louisiana and California and Oregon and Washington State while raising their three children Lisa, Mark, and Matthew.
Upon his retirement as a lieutenant colonel in 1972, Ken and family settled in Tacoma, Washington, the site of a previous military posting. He returned to science classes at the local vocational school, becoming a laboratory technician for the county’s public health office.
Civilian parenthood saw his kids join church youth group, school band and choir, swimming and water polo teams. Johnnie pursued her nursing career. Ken applied his numerous skills to sewing tents and down clothing, building fishing rods, tying fishing flies, and dabbling in woodworking. The family owned a travel trailer and traveled throughout the Pacific northwest and wider West. Ken began a long affiliation with Scouting, serving multiple times as a scout master and adviser.
With the last kid out of high school in 1981, it was time to retire again to small town mountain life in Mill City, Oregon. Ken helped construct their new house with picture windows and decks and a hot tub overlooking the Santiam River. Life in Oregon included gardening and reading and crossword puzzles.
The empty nest offered time to seriously study woodworking. Ken built everything from pens to bowls to cabinetry. He became a master wood turner, won ribbons at the Oregon State Fair, and was invited to display his work at the White House, an offer that he turned down with his usual modesty.
Empty nest years brought more travel, mostly to Europe, as well as many winters as a snowbird living with Johnnie in their travel trailer in Texas and Arizona. Leaving home was not his favorite activity, but he was always a faithful traveling companion to Johnnie.
After more than thirty years had passed in Mill City, the house on the river became too large and isolated. Wintering in Arizona became too much of a trek.
Ken and Johnnie moved to DuPont and then Federal Way, Washington to be closer to Lisa and Mark. A series of seizures and then the onset of Alzheimer’s slowed Ken in his final years.
Kenneth Lee Spaur passed away peacefully at home on January 21, 2021 with family nearby. He is survived by Ann Marie “Johnnie” Spaur, his wife of 66 years; children Lisa Radmer, Mark Spaur, and Matthew Spaur; grandchildren Jayson Radmer, Zachary Radmer, and Kristina Spaur; and siblings Beverly Bialoch and Lawrence Spaur. Memorial Services with military honors were held at Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Washington.
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