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When the pages of history are the days of your life

Bill Vitale’s life reads like a history book

Created date

February 21st, 2012

History is Bill Vitale s life. Not the study of it, but in what he has done and who he has met. Throughout his more than 40-year career, he found himself an integral part of the moments that are now a part of America s story. Now retired and living at Ashby Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va., with his wife, Sue, Bill is writing his memoirs for his grandchildren, Amanda and Evan. I want them to know I was not a pickle farmer, he jokes.

Where it all began

In 1946, Bill joined the Army Air Corps, a decision that would define his life. After less than two years of service, he was one of several candidates selected to interview for the position of administrative aide to the country s first Secretary of Defense, James Vincent Forrestal. I was only 19, and the importance of the interview was not lost on me, says Bill. But I had no idea how much that one interview would change my life. I met with one of the members of the senior staff and was asked how it was that I had arrived for the interview without a wrinkle in my uniform. I told the man I had chosen not to sit down on the bus that took me to the Pentagon. I guess he liked that answer because I got the job. Bill began working in the Secretary of Defense s reception room, receiving visitors, answering phones, and traveling with the Secretary to important meetings and functions. Over the course of seven years, Bill would serve the country s first five Secretaries of Defense as administrative aide, but it was the third Secretary, General George Marshall, who would have the biggest impact on his life. General Marshall was more instrumental than anyone else in my thinking, Bill says. He took a real interest in the people who worked for him. It was because of his generosity that I was able to attend college while working in his office.

Working for a legend

The former Secretary of State during World War II, General Marshall became the Secretary of Defense in September 1950 as the U.S. fought in the Korean conflict. It was a difficult time, and I believe no one else was better prepared to serve our country in this way, says Bill. Unbeknownst to him at the time, while working for General Marshall, Bill carried President Truman s order relieving General Douglas MacArthur of his duties as General of the Army in Korea to the Pentagon. The dismissal led to a storm of public controversy. It was only after returning to the Pentagon that I learned what it was that I had been carrying, he says.

Broadening horizons

In 1953, Bill decided to leave his position and attend law school at American University. He then worked as a law clerk in the general counsel s office of the Army Transportation Corps. Bill also worked for the Atomic Energy Commission as chief of the administrative branch. I had a great job at the commission, says Bill. While I was working there, the Russians launched Sputnik [the first artificial satellite launched into orbit]. Over 200 of my coworkers left to work for NASA. Over time, they convinced me to join them. While working at NASA, first as chief of the management services branch and later as director of the management division, Bill met General William McKee, four-star Air Force General and former Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. In 1965, McKee was asked by President Johnson to head the Federal Aviation Administration, says Bill. General McKee asked if I would go with him. I agreed. Bill spent several years in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) office of the administrator, directing the regulatory council and the National Airspace System communications staff. I reported to three executives, he says. It was a real pressure cooker, so I asked to be transferred to airports. I thought that would be a nice, easy job ha! Bill became responsible for the supervision of both Washington Dulles and Washington National Airports. He headed a grants program in support of public airports and handled the transfer of former military bases to American cities for the building of new public airports. Bill is most proud of his contribution to a program designed to stop hijackings. There was a time in the 1970s and early 1980s when hijackings were quite frequent, he says. Previously, programs had been put into place concerning what should be done once a hijacking was under way. We decided to take a new approach: to look at ways to stop them from happening. A constant presence in the FAA Hijack Command Center, Bill helped stop many hijackings during his tenure. In 1979 he was appointed director, office of airport standards, and oversaw the creation of hundreds of FAA standards still in use today. In one last career move, Bill was appointed executive secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE). His position involved handling correspondence for the DOE s top three offices, including those from the President. Even in retirement, Bill finds ways to contribute, including supporting the White House Science office, serving as a Fairfax County, Va., magistrate, and even working as a Wal-Mart greeter. And while Bill s resume is filled with historical figures and momentous events, he most fondly remembers his time serving under General George Marshall. He was a warm-hearted, generous man, who, as busy as he was, wanted me to go to college, says Bill. For me, that was as important as his famous Marshall Plan.