Building Connections in the Buckeye State: A Retired Aircraft Maintainer’s USO Volunteer Story

By Erik Oberg

The first thing you notice when you meet 84-year-old Gerald “Jerry” Haines— he’s glad to get to know you. He’ll bellow out, “Hey, how are you doing … where are you from?” and undoubtedly a great conversation will unfold from there.

For many visitors to the USO center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) in Ohio, it’s Jerry they’ve come to see.

A former aircraft maintainer with a combined 52 years of military and civilian service, Jerry has volunteered more hours (nearly 8,000 and counting!) at USO Wright-Patterson than anyone else on the roster. With his booming voice and even bigger heart, it’s no longer aircraft he’s maintaining; it’s the spirit and humor of the service members who come to hear stories and swap stories, to check in and be checked on. Day after day, Jerry supports them all.

A living example of volunteerism, Jerry, along with the team at USO Wright-Patterson, runs the base’s Airman’s Attic, which is located in the same building as the USO. Specifically, Jerry manages the Airman’s Attic drop-off station and receives donations of uniforms, clothing, small housewares and children’s items. He then helps sort through hundreds of items per week, filtering out what should stay and be made available to junior enlisted service members at no cost, and what’s best sent elsewhere.

Retired Air Force Col. Anna Schulte is the co-volunteer manager of the Airman’s Attic at USO Wright-Patterson. She and Jerry served over 20 years together in the 445th Airlift Wing at WPAFB.

“Jerry makes it happen. Whether in the military or for the military, he just makes it happen,” she said.

But while Jerry’s volunteerism at the Airman’s Attic brings him to the USO every morning, it’s the connections he builds with service members that keep him there the rest of the day.

Serving in the Military Laid a Foundation for Volunteerism

Jerry grew up in Tewksbury, Mass., and was the sixth of ten siblings, two of whom served in World War II. Jerry’s second oldest brother, Richard, was his hero. Richard served in the war and came home with both medals and wounds. After the war, four of Jerry’s brothers, Richard included, joined the police force.

Jerry, though, decided to join the Air Force. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the Air Force sent him to maintenance school, where he learned to do the job he’d do overseas in England, the Philippines and on Midway Island, as well as stateside in Virginia, Ohio, Texas and California.

Jerry’s many years in uniform helped him collect an impressive number of entertaining stories, like the time he played football for George Steinbrenner, the former owner of the New York Yankees. While in the Air Force himself, George Steinbrenner coached the football team at Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio, where Jerry was stationed from 1957-1963. Jerry played both offense and defense on Steinbrenner’s team. The team traveled all over the United States to other military installations and won the Strategic Air Command Championship.

Jerry also has some special USO memories from his time in service. In the mid-1960s, Jerry’s wife and daughter stopped over at a New York airport USO while traveling from Charleston to Boston, where they met the famed actress Jayne Mansfield. Another USO story: Jerry did not meet Bob Hope during the comedian’s legendary tours overseas, but he remembers working on Hope’s airplane at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Jerry and his fellow maintainers installed artificial turf on the cargo deck and affixed a Christmas tree and presents to the loading ramp.

Settling into Volunteering at the USO

After 20 years of active duty and 32 years of civilian service in the Air Force Reserves, Jerry finally retired in 2014 at age 77. How fortunate that USO Wight-Patterson opened two years later. Jerry’s fellow USO volunteer, Air Force Master Sgt. Lisa Quinn, has known Jerry since 2007. Ask her about Jerry and she’ll respond with a smile.

“Jerry has such pride in the military and in the country, and he remembers everything about these kids who come to the USO, away from home for the first time,” she said. “He gets to know them like they’re family and makes them feel welcome and valued … me too!” Jerry, with a bit of humor, explained why he enjoys his volunteerism and giving back to the military community.

“Someone once said to me, ‘Have you ever been high?’ I said, ‘Yeah, quite a bit.’ He says, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘I feel great, but it depends on what you call high. My idea of getting high is when I talk to people and communicate with people. That’s the way I am.’”

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