Retired Lt. Col. Walt Davis made the transition from U.S. Air Force pilot to educator, and it’s a choice he's never regretted.
Davis grew up as a “military brat,” moving from place to place. He ended up following in his father's footsteps.
“He was a pilot. I always wanted to be a pilot,” Davis said.
Davis graduated from the Air Force Academy and served a 20-year career in the Air Force, mostly flying.
“I did one staff tour at the Pentagon in the ‘90s,” he said.
After retiring from the service from his last assignment at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, the Columbia resident became a commercial airline pilot for three years.
“My goal was to just flow right into a flying job on the outside, so I got hired by U.S. Air,” he said. “And I was very proud of myself because I’d done a lot of research on it.”
Based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, “I had 2,000 pilots under me in seniority. In the airline industry, everything is seniority,” he said. “It’s the whole secret of your lifestyle.
“So I was feeling like I was ‘Teflon’ for any kind of economic downturn.”
But after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he found himself laid off. With his family settled in Columbia, he decided he didn’t want to leave the area for a job.
Seeking employment nearby, he saw an ad in a newspaper for a job with Edisto High School’s Air Force JROTC program and was soon hired as the head of the unit.
It was “a lot of hard work, but I enjoyed the interaction with the kids (and) I enjoyed being home every night,” he said.
Davis originally thought he might work at the school until the airline called him back to being a pilot. But he enjoyed educating and molding young minds so much that when his chance to work as a pilot did come again, he turned it down.
“When they called me back, I just put it off as long as I could,” he said. “They said, ‘Either you’re coming back or we’re going to take you off the list.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ So I stayed in education. And I’ve enjoyed it.”
And there’s a reason he stuck with it.
“Most teachers are frustrated with the lack of ability they have to change the course of kids’ lives, but if they didn’t think they were doing just a little bit, they wouldn’t stay in this,” he said.
“Most of us think we’re doing just a little bit to help out,” he said.
“I’ve never regretted not going back to the airline. Sometimes I miss it a little bit,” he said.
Davis gets up early to make the commute from Columbia to Cordova.
“My typical day, I get in about 7. And the most important part of my day is 7 o’clock because I have to go down to the front office and make coffee for the school,” he said. “If I don’t make coffee for the school, this place would fall apart.”
All joking aside, his day involves teaching students about aerospace science and leadership, conducting drills of the student cadets and all the planning and paperwork that goes along with being a teacher.
“Teachers like to complain about their workload, but they’re not talking about teaching students,” he said. “They talk about making lesson plans and submitting paperwork and doing their online stuff to satisfy the administration in the school and the district.”
So, of course, he does that part of the job and then makes sure the day is planned out and the students are set up for the online component of the classes. Google Classroom and a new program, Canvas, figure into the online instruction, he said.
“All the students have Chromebooks in this district. A federal grant paid for all of this,” he said.
At the start of the day, he and fellow instructor Sgt. Earl Chatman will discuss plans for the students.
“We teach a block schedule, a semester block. So we’ll have four periods a day. We teach three classes and we’ll team-teach all of it,” he said.
“That way, when they get bored with one of us, we roll to the next guy,” he laughed.
He said Air Force JROTC involves two components -- leadership and science. There’s also a physical education component on Fridays, which counts as a one-year P.E. state requirement for freshmen.
“So a lot of kids will take our program just so they don’t have to go do P.E.,” he said.
Another important part of the program is community service involving things such as charitable endeavors and visits to nursing homes. Davis said the instructors keep close track of all the students’ community service hours, jobs and promotions, entering them into a national database.
“A lot of kids will respond to that because inside the military framework, you get stuff for doing stuff,” he said. “So if some kids like to get rank, that’s there for them. Some people like to get recognized and get ribbons. That’s there for them.”
They also take the students on trips, like a visit to Fort Jackson or to a major hub town in the region where they will visit three or four colleges, he said.
Davis said the best part of his job is interacting with the students.
“You develop a relationship with the kids. They keep you young, hip. I just learned some new slang this week,” he said. “Their minds are very powerful, full of slang and all sorts of code.”
“But memorizing a very simple equation – that’s too hard,” he laughed.
He said it’s gratifying “when you feel like you’ve had some part in getting a kid over the hump for something they’re trying to accomplish.”
The worst part is seeing a student who could have a bright future ahead of them squandering their potential through laziness, he said.
“The kids that have the most ability and they blow it off and they waste ability – that is extremely frustrating,” he said. “And you can’t figure out what the key is to motivate them.”
Davis and his wife Kim have been married 32 years. They have three grown children and three grandchildren.
His parents live in Colorado and he visits when he can.
“My dad did 30 years in the Air Force. He flew 100-series airplanes – test pilot and Air Defense Command,” he said. “So he’s got lots of stories to tell.”
In his spare time, he enjoys music, reading running and sports.
With family and circles of friends in cities in South and North Carolina to visit, “it keeps us fairly busy,” he said.
He has also found himself drawn into his wife’s passion for animal rescue, particularly for Chihuahuas. They have two Chihuahuas they rescued, but they have had as many as five at a time in the past.