Air Force life was a dream

Staff writer

Sharolyn Tibbetts of Hillsboro is one of the few that can say she lived a dream come true, and she’s not even retirement age yet.

At age 63, Tibbetts enjoys swimming every day at the USD 408 Sports and Aquatic Center, she enjoys getting to know people at the Hillsboro Senior Center where she serves on the board of directors, and she enjoys involvement at Hillsboro United Methodist Church along with her husband, Gary. The dream she lived however, was seven years of service in the United States Air Force where she learned to ask questions, multitask assignments, and prioritize her responsibilities.

“The military is not for everybody,” she said. “But for me, it was a chance to live my dream. I had so many varied experiences. It was fascinating.”

Sharolyn and Gary were both Derby High School graduates, but when Gary enlisted in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sharolyn enrolled at Fort Hays State University to study home economics.

“My goal was to become a home economist,” she said. “But my father insisted I add the education part of it, while my real interests were in interior decorating. Looking back, it is very interesting how all those things came together and prepared me for experiences later in life.”

Gary and Sharolyn were married in 1971 when Gary graduated after four years at the academy and become an enlisted officer. They moved to San Antonio, Texas for his first assignment, and Sharolyn found work as a crafts and fabrics department store buyer.

“The first time we were in San Antonio, I really thought I might want to enter officer training school to join the Air Force, but Gary didn’t want us both to be military employed,” she said. “I found out later it was because he didn’t want me to outrank him.”

It was not until nine-years later, when the couple had moved to Washington, D.C. for a year, to Edwards Air Force Base in California for several months, and then back to San Antonio for another Air Force commitment, that Sharolyn got the go-ahead from Gary to apply for enlistment.

“It’s just something I always wanted to do,” she said. “I was aware of the challenges from watching Gary. I saw the opportunities and rewards, and I was lucky to get in at a time that many old standards were changing.”

Sharolyn was one of the first married women allowed in the Air Force. She also had two children at home by that time, and took advantage of a three-month on-base training course that led to her ranking ascent from Lieutenant, to Corporal, and finally Captain.

“There were three ways to get into the Air Force,” she said. “The first was the traditional way, four years at the Air Force Academy, the second was ROTC at any university, and the third was the 90-day wonders.”

Tibbetts said her 90-day officer training experience was not physically hard, but it was very stressful.

“There was no way to possibly get through the officer training sessions without a lot of frustration,” she said. “They built the program to force you to fail. Time management was so stressful; there was just no way to get it all done. But that was the way they taught you how to evaluate what was important and how to prioritize tasks.”

Through compact learning and subtle messaging, Tibbetts said she learned how to determine what was really important. Her mastery of those skills propelled her to top-level jobs in administrative positions in San Antonio, London England, and Montgomery, Ala.

She especially enjoyed organizing parades in London, but after seven years of service, she decided she had fulfilled her commitments and asked to resign her commission.

“We were getting ready to move again, I had lost a child, and to progress in my field I would need to take some remote assignments,” she said. “While I enjoyed every minute of my service, I knew it was time to do something else.”

Sharolyn spent the next 14 years as a unit clerk and admissions control technician at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, continuing to use all the multitasking and prioritizing skills she learned in service.

“I just retired from Wesley last June,” she said. “I am really enjoying decorating my home, keeping up with family, and making connections here in Marion County. I’ve always liked asking questions and learning to know my people. I am just continuing to do that.”

Gary and Sharolyn Tibbetts have lived in Hillsboro for three years. Gary serves on the city planning and zoning commision and works as a security guard for Boeing.

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