As he walked in the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) graduation ceremony at Ramstein Air Force Base April 29, retired Air Force Col. Gary LaGassey was practicing his life-long credo: never stop learning.
At 71, he was earning his MBA, his fourth degree and the second one from UMUC. He was the oldest person in his class—by far—but he said the program was one of the most stimulating things he has done.
“It turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he said. “I was in class with a bunch of young, smart people all eager to learn. They took me on as the ‘old Dad.’ But I had a lot of real-life experiences to contribute that fit nicely with their youth and eagerness.”
For a guy who never wants to stop learning, his academic career had a rocky start.
LaGassey was born in Detroit and raised in Royal Oak, Michigan. His father, Homer LaGassey, Jr., was a noted automobile designer for the Big Three automakers and taught transportation design at the Center for Creative Studies. His futuristic drawings of automobiles from the 1950s and 1960s can still be found on the internet.
His grandfather, Homer LaGassey, Sr., was an accomplished musician who played with the legendary Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey in the Big Band era before heading the music department of Detroit public schools. His mother’s father had been head of the American Automobile Association in Detroit and invented how to fold road maps.
“So, I came from an accomplished family,” he said. “But out of high school, I lasted only one semester at Michigan State before I was bounced out.”
After working at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he got a draft notice. That spurred him to enlist in the Air Force. By the end of 1969, he was stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy and married to Luciana, an Italian native, whom he said has been his inspiration throughout his career. With a daughter on the way, he realized it was time to get serious about an education if he ever wanted to become an officer. That led him to UMUC.
“A number of universities offered courses at Aviano at the time, but Maryland was the one that had the greatest track record,” he said. “They were really pushing education. Everyone was trying to help me overcome this bad record from Michigan State.”
The same is still true today, said LaGassey, whose career has circled him back to Aviano where he lives now, working for the Air Force on negotiations and agreements with Mediterranean countries.
“The Maryland people here at this education center have always been world class,” he said. “Other colleges came and went. Maryland is the master of how you do overseas education. They are flexible and understand the military mindset. They cornered the market, and they still have it cornered.”
In fact, his daughter, Jessica, whose imminent birth helped spur him to finish his undergraduate degree all those years ago, is now 44 and a UMUC graduate herself—as is her husband. A U.S. Army civilian employee at Stuttgart, Germany, Jessica joined LaGassey for his MBA graduation ceremony.
The Road to Ramstein
LaGassey earned his commission in 1975 and was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota for four years on an ICBM missile crew. With little to do in South Dakota, and knowing that advancement in the Air Force required an advanced degree, he earned a master’s in public administration through the University of Northern Colorado. From there, he commanded the first ground-launched cruise missiles in Sicily.
The late 1980s and early 1990s found him in Washington with the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political-military country desk officer. LaGassey worked for Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin Powell during the Gulf War and traveled with him to London, where he visited Prime Minister John Major at 10 Downing Street and translated for both Powell and then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney in meetings with their Italian counterparts in 1990.
“Gen. Powell was the first chairman in a long time to let his country desk officers travel with him,” LaGassey said. “That was pretty heady stuff for a young lieutenant colonel.”
In 1993, NATO and the U.S. Air Force decided to put an F-16 wing in Aviano to have a fighter base south of the Alps. That initiative tripled the military population of the 1950s-era base to 3,500 and required the construction of $530 million in air support, runway and living facilities infrastructure—a total of 264 major projects. When construction lagged in 1998, LaGassey was appointed program office manager.
“Lt. Gen. Mike Short turned to me and said he had to have his fighter wing ready to go to war in the Balkans in 1999 and needed to focus on that. He wanted me to run the construction program. I jumped on that.
“At one point, we had 1,400 construction workers a day on the base, building a city with a new hospital, schools, youth centers, lots of operations stuff and a new runway.”
Those efforts took him to his military retirement in 2005. But he stayed in Aviano, working as a civilian for the Air Force—and dabbling in all things education. His first venture in retirement was earning a master’s degree in international relations through the University of Oklahoma.
His time with the Joint Chiefs had piqued his interest in the subject and he wanted to learn more about the military diplomacy he had witnessed while serving as a country desk officer.
What you are learning does not have to apply to your career, LaGassey said. He takes as his inspiration Peter Drucker, the influential management consultant, educator and author, who believed people should always be learning something.
“If you don't want to do the formal education or you are finished with it, jump into lifelong learning,” LaGassey said. “Pick something you want and study it for three years to master it, and then move on. You can do that your whole life. Here I am 71, and I’m going to be jumping into something new. It keeps you young.”
He thought about his lifetime educational pursuits and what he tells young people.
“Get your education,” he said. “It’s one thing they can never take away from you. It’s worked for me … I think I have caught up with my failure at Michigan State.”