Ex-Airman is a cut above

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dillon White
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs Office
Would a barber know how to remove an engine from an F-84 Sabre? 

Absolutely, as long as that barber is Jim Thul. 

The Dubuque, Iowa, native has cut hair at Malmstrom for 50 years as of April 1, 2009. 

During those years, he has given "trims" to children, who later returned to his barber chair as servicemembers. He has also "lowered the ears" of Airmen and second lieutenants, who have returned as chief master sergeants and general officers. 

"It's something I've done that no one else on base has done," Mr. Thul said. "I've seen a lot of people come through here and come back again." 

One of those second lieutenants was Maj. Gen. Tom Deppe, Air Force Space Command vice commander. 

General Deppe has known Mr. Thul for 32 years. Their friendship began when he was first assigned to Malmstrom from 1977 to 1982, and continued when he returned as the 341st Strategic Missile Wing commander from 2000 to 2002, and thrives to this day. 

"No one person has been more valuable to the Airmen, the NCOs, the officers and especially the commanders, than Jim," General Deppe said. 

The general started every week with an early Monday-morning haircut, and Jim provided the commander insight on what the morale of the people on base was like, he said. 

"No one has a feel for the mood of the base like Jim," General Deppe said. "He never 'dropped a dime' on a particular person or organization, but had a unique way of telling me where to look for the next problem." 

The general also remembered a story Mr. Thul told him about a mother who had brought her three sons in for haircuts while her husband was deployed. 

"Being young, the boys were restless. As he finished the first two [haircuts] and was preparing for the third, a missile crewmember lieutenant walked in and demanded he be served ahead of the third boy because the sign in the barber shop read 'alert crewforce gets priority.'" 

The general asked Mr. Thul who the lieutenant was, but he would not tell him. The two removed the sign from the barber shop and the BX that same morning, and the general gained wisdom that day from talking with Mr. Thul, he said. 

"It made me aware that not everyone at a base with an important job wears a uniform. We have many DoD civilians, spouses of our deployed Airmen, plus others who have shorter schedules than many of our people in uniform," he said. 

The two still see one another on occasions, including the general's change of command ceremony, when he was appointed the vice commander of AFSPC. 

"I went down to see the ceremony [at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.], and general Deppe stopped during his acceptance speech and saluted me," Mr. Thul said. "That meant a lot to me." 

Mr. Thul also has a military history here. He first arrived at Malmstrom as an enlisted aircraft maintainer in 1953. During that time, he met his wife, Marion, in Choteau, Mont., before being reassigned to Ellsworth AFB, S.D., in 1955, where he maintained B-36 Peacemaker bombers. Years later, he would put this knowledge to use by performing a few repairs to several aircraft currently on display at the base museum, including leading a crew that removed the engine from the museum's F-84 Sabre upon its arrival. 

His enlistment in the active-duty Air Force ended in 1956. From there, he took up rough-necking at an oil rig in Iowa, and later went to barber school. 

His opportunity to come back to Malmstrom was in the form of a temporary position. A personal friend, who was a barber at Malmstrom, was going on vacation and asked Mr. Thul if he could cover for him. The touring barber never returned, and Mr. Thul stayed, to continue giving people $.90 "trims." 

Mr. Thul also served as an Air National Guardsman after signing up on his 40th birthday, July 15, 1975. He stayed with the Guard for 20 years, cooking on drill weekends for services, while cutting hair at Malmstrom during the week. He retired from the Guard on his 60th birthday. 

"I took a lot of pride serving both bases [cooking and cutting hair]," Mr. Thul said. "If I could, I would go back in the Guard right now. It was a really good experience." 

In the last 50 years, he has given haircuts to nearly 30 wing commanders. 

Mr. Thul still lives in the same house he and his wife bought in 1960, and says he has gained more living here than he ever would anywhere else. 

"The 120th Fighter Wing and Malmstrom are part of me, they're my home." 

Sentiments shared by a good friend

(Editor's note: Steve Kubick is a retired Air Force officer who also served as the CEO of 1st Liberty Federal Credit Union. He submitted the following information to the Public Affairs Office when asked for a comment or two about his good friend.)

I have had the pleasure of knowing Jim and his family since I arrived in August 1966, with the exception of June1968 - June 1969 and April 1970 - December 1972. Throughout all that time, he has been a superior human being and an outstanding asset to the men and woman of Malmstrom AFB. He is that because he is a kind and compassionate person to the military family, whatever their rank or stature in life may be.

Early on, as a member of the credit committee of 1st Liberty FCU in the 60's, I witnessed his compassion toward military people during the Viet Nam period when financial conditions of the families were different than today. All his decisions gave careful consideration to their plight and he would do all he could for them within Federal guidelines.

He has cut my hair throughout the years. There is always a warm smile and greeting without fail. When I was on active duty, I had my hair cut weekly and later, usually every other week. Each time I had an encounter with Jim, he was always pleasant to me and those who came in after, always kind and courteous.

He has been an integral part of Operation Happy Holidays over the past 11 years. He has been there every year baking cookies and making gift boxes for all the Montana active-duty military, Guard and Reserve troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during the holiday season. He has used his vacation time to do this. When we started the project, we had hoped it would have been over with the first Gulf War, but that never happened and every year he is there.

He has been active with the Malmstrom Retirees program. Again, as part of his concern for those who serve and have served. He has made numerous home visits to cut the hair of those unable to come in to the Barber Shop when impaired. He even cut the hair of his departed brothers to ensure they were in military standards for their Final Inspection.

This is unequivocally 50 years of faithful and loyal service to Malmstrom Air Force base and its people.