Tuesday, May 31, 2016

TOP STORY >> Lonoke native inspires pupils

Leader staff writer

Lt. Col. Charles (Spanky) Gilliam, a Lonoke native, spoke to students at Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School Flightline Upper Academy during the school’s career day on Friday about making good life choices.

Gilliam is commander of the 48th Flying Training Squadron at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. He grew up in Lonoke and graduated from Lonoke High School in 1995. He later graduated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

He told the middle school students that his parents split up when he was young. His mother was a truck driver who raised four children. She worked hard, loved them and wanted the best for them. Gilliam said his father was his biggest supporter at the football games and for academic accomplishments.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I was poor. At times when my mom was on the road, we’d live with my dad in a little house on Harrison Street. I thought everything was normal. The house we lived in was small with one bedroom we shared with dad, my brother and my sister. He did the best he could. I was not ashamed of it. We just didn’t have a whole lot growing up. The house had holes that you could see outside. I never felt like I was poor, or like I was never loved,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam said in high school he had some phenomenal teachers.

“I was a kid that stayed out of trouble. I did my homework. I worked hard at anything and everything I did in life whether in the classroom doing a math test or on the football field, the basketball court, the track or going to church. I always tried my absolute best,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam told the students because he made good choices it created opportunities for college.

“People would see me around town. They knew who I was by my reputation. Your reputation is your brand. It represents you, your family and everyone else that cares about you. If you want a great reputation you’re not going to lie, you’re not going to steal, you’re not going to cheat,” Gilliam said.

He continued, “I tried to have a good reputation in school growing up. People naturally took care of me. I didn’t have a whole lot of money. People would buy me basketball shoes because I didn’t have shoes to play basketball in. They would take me out to lunch or dinner to a nice restaurant like Olive Garden, just because they cared about me because I was a good kid and worked hard.”

Gilliam played football as a tailback for the Lonoke Jackrabbits and a fullback for the Air Force Falcons.

“Sports teaches you discipline, teamwork and to put others before yourself. In football, you’re not the one who is going to score all the touchdowns or make the game-winning tackle every time. It takes everyone doing their job, sacrificing for someone else in order for the entire time to be successful,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam said when he got his appointment to the Air Force Academy, he thought he would become an engineer.

“You never know what you are going to do in life and don’t ever shut doors that you don’t know about. I had no idea that I’d fly airplanes,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam said the glider program at the academy gave him a love of flying. He attended pilot training in Columbus, Miss. When he graduated from the program, he was kept on as an instructor for three years. Then he flew C-17s at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C.; McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., and all around the world.

Gilliam said a flight stop in New Delhi, India, made a big impression on him. He traveled on a six-hour bus ride to see the Taj Mahal.

“It is the most beautiful structure I’ve ever seen in my life. It is a huge majestic place with marble and gold. It takes your breath away. On the same trip I got see extreme poverty. I saw kids wearing just a cloth around, living in tin lean-tos.

“I thought I had it bad growing up,” Gilliam said.

He told the students, “Travel around the world a little bit. You will have a greater understanding of how blessed you really are. Every one of you has clothes on your back. These kids didn’t and were playing around happy because of their attitude.”

“Every one of you is a leader. You lead yourself and you have influence on others around you. Good leaders have great attitude,” Gilliam said.