Alphonso Thomas reflects on his 41-year Air Force Career

  • Published
  • By Angela Startz

As Alphonso Thomas, recently retired director of Air Force Sustainment Center Engineering and Technical Management Directorate, looks back over his 41-year career with the Air Force, one word comes to mind: thankful.

Thankful for all who supported and encouraged the boy who grew up in a shack behind a house on a dirt road in a small town in Alabama.

Thankful for his teachers, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to open doors for him.

Thankful for the opportunities provided by the Air Force that led to a life well lived.

Growing up in a segregated elementary school in Eufaula, Alabama, Thomas’ sense of self began to take shape in fifth grade when his teacher, Mrs. Wells, encouraged him to enter the performing arts.

“She was one of the first people to help me to understand it was OK to be proud of who I was,” he shared, “in spite of being poor, of being Black.”

He became involved in the performing arts, acting in school plays about the Underground Railroad and performing Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech at school assemblies.

After moving up to the brand-new, integrated Admiral Moorer Middle School, he met his second love – music. Thanks to his seventh-grade band director, a school-owned baritone horn found its way into his hands and the rest is history.

“I advanced pretty quickly, and he actually put me in the high school marching band while I was still in middle school. Between music, art and poetry, I gained more self-confidence,” said Thomas. “It gave me the confidence to try bigger and better things.”

That love of music ran parallel with a love of math. “Funny thing is, I always seemed to do well at math. Math was the one course that after I finished my homework, I’d look for more problems to solve. I spent a lot of time on music and math because they were fun to me.”

While in high school, Thomas was walking away from the auditorium where the National Honor Society induction was happening when his guidance counselor frantically waved him down, trying to prevent him from leaving. “I walked into the auditorium, and I hear my name announced as an inductee into the honor society.  I was also surprised to find out that my mother was there in the audience.

“During the senior year awards day, I heard my name called again.  This time, I received a Navy ROTC scholarship to attend Auburn! I didn’t even remember applying, so I suspect my counselor had applied for me. I will never forget that day.”

He left high school and headed to Auburn University early to attend marching band camp and later start his mathematics degree, but soon realized that his true calling was music. Feeling frustrated, he explored the possibility of changing his scholarship from math to music.  In the process, he met an Air Force recruiter who told him that he could make a living in the Air Force Band. After a successful audition, he left Auburn before the end of the first quarter of school to enlist in the Air Force.

That one decision sent him on a two-year tour of the southeastern United States and a European tour for the following two years. Even while he was doing what he loved, he filled his evenings with college classes in math and computer science.

Upon learning about his night classes, one of his superiors recommended that he apply to the Airman Education and Commissioning Program to “compete to be sent back to school full-time, because the Air Force was looking for more engineers and looking at enlisted folks who might have that acumen. So I applied, competed and got selected, and was sent to Auburn, back to where I started, for three years, full-time, but this time in electrical engineering.” It is one of his proudest moments, to go from a college drop-out to alumnus.


“Early on, my mother gave me the best advice: don’t just treat others like you want to be treated; think about how they want to be treated,” he said. “That has molded who I am and who I want to become.”

While in uniform and stationed in Germany, Thomas and his new wife experienced that kind of love, setting them on a lifetime of paying it forward.

“I met Fred and Delores Wilson at the chapel there in Germany, where they ‘adopted’ Airmen who were far from home and needed a sense of belonging. They were kind enough to provide space for my wife and me when we were first married until our housing was ready. Not only have they been life-long friends, but they have stood in as parents and grandparents to our family for decades.”

The Thomas family was able to pay it forward when, in 2010, they were stationed in Rome, New York. Each year, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund interns would come to work there, spending their summers in a predominately white population.

“Of the 1,200 people in AFRL’s Information Directorate, only 10 of us were African American, and most were support staff. My wife and I took those interns to our home for cookouts, took them to church services on Sundays and did our weekly grocery run so they had everything they needed for a home away from home. Some years, there were as many as 12 of these students.”

“Even now, we are still part of many of their lives, watching them grow, watching their families grow; it’s been a win for me.”

He continued his advocacy for young personnel later in his civilian career, when he created two programs at the 402nd Software Maintenance Group. One was the Junior Force Council, which gave junior employees a voice to senior leadership and a built-in support system. The other was the Voluntary Reassignment Program, created to keep employees engaged in their career path by allowing them to switch jobs if they were not fully engaged or desired broadening. While unconventional in its nature, the program ultimately improved production numbers and the morale of the workers.


After 14 years in uniformed service, Thomas separated from the Air Force in 1992 and headed back to Boston. He attended one of the premier music schools in the world, Berklee College of Music, known for its alumni who excel in contemporary music. There, Thomas honed his saxophone performance skills. To support his family, he played gigs up and down the East Coast, including a standing appointment at the Joyful Noise Concert each year at Harvard University. He recorded his album While We Still Can in 1997, featuring a mix of original and cover songs.

Today his instrument collection includes, among others, five saxophones, three keyboards, two guitars and a flute. His plan for post-retirement includes putting them all to good use on stage around the Atlanta area.

Thomas eventually tired of being on the road and returned to government service as a civilian. He credits his first Senior Executive Service supervisor for inspiring him to pursue executive leadership.

“He told me, ‘Al, I believe you can do anything you set your mind to, you just have to believe in yourself,’” which inspired him to attend the Federal Executive Institute and the Air Force Enterprise Leadership Seminar as the next steps in his civilian career.

“The Air Force, both military and civil service, has provided me opportunities I would have never had otherwise - specifically, paid for a bachelor’s degree; paid for a master’s degree; and the additional leadership training and education I received. The Federal Executive Institute four-week Leadership for a Democratic Society course was a life-changing event.

“Anywhere outside of the government, I would have never had these opportunities. I’ve had courses at the University of Virginia and at Harvard University - it’s been phenomenal. And then the work - the work is absolutely game-changing! To get a chance to not only see and touch, but to effect changes to the weapon systems that are used to protect our nation is phenomenal.”

Thomas looks back on his years with pride, seeing a young man from Alabama grow and succeed in both of his passions: music and mathematics, thanks to the many people who helped him along the way. “It’s just been awesome. I wish I could make a list and just go hug them all.”