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Airman’s art work on display nearly 40 years later

Robert Thomas and Chief Master Sgt. Gene Thomas (ret.) stand in front of several images created by Robert, during a tour of the Portland National Guard Air Base, Ore., Nov. 7. The original  images were created by Robert Thomas nearly 40 years ago when he was a member of the Oregon Air National Guard and have been put on display by the hard work of Gene Thomas. (Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Robert Thomas and Chief Master Sgt. Gene Thomas (ret.) stand in front of several images created by Robert, during a tour of the Portland National Guard Air Base, Ore., Nov. 7. The original images were created by Robert Thomas nearly 40 years ago when he was a member of the Oregon Air National Guard and have been put on display by the hard work of Gene Thomas. (Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. -- In 1972, when Senior Master Sgt. Gene Thomas was the First Sgt. for the 142nd Fighter Wing Consolidated aircraft maintenance (CAM) Squadron, he soon discovered that one of his young Airmen had a unique ability to draw and sketch. Now, after more than 40 years, Airman First Class Robert Thomas's art work is finally on display at the 142nd Fighter Wing's main hangar.

"Now that I am retired, I started coming out to the Air Base working as a volunteer historian a few years ago and found a set of photographic negatives marked, "unknown origin" on the film sleeves", said Gene Thomas.

Upon further inspection, Chief Thomas realized, to his delight that these were large format negatives of the drawling that Airman Thomas had created from the early 1970's. Going through other history material he soon found more pieces to the puzzle, and had all the images he found printed into 11x14 prints.

Getting the prints framed and displayed after so many years gave Gene Thomas a sense of completion to the project he started years before, but finding Airman Robert Thomas became the next challenge.

"I did some searching and found three 'Robert Thomas's in the Portland area, and sent each a letter asking them if they were the Oregon Air National Guardsman that worked for me," Gene Thomas said.

Finally, Chief Thomas got a call from the true Robert Thomas, who is still working as a commercial artist in the Portland area, yet ironically had not been back to the Portland Air National Guard base since leaving the military 1974.

During the Vietnam era, Robert Thomas served from 1968 to 1974 with the Oregon Air National Guard.

"You know he severed his six years of duty with us but I lost track of him after," said Gene Thomas.

"It's like, wow I get this letter from my old First Sgt. After all these years and one of the first things I think it, "Am I in some kind of trouble," Robert Thomas said jokingly.

Soon after the two men talked by phone, Chief Thomas arranged a short tour to have Robert Thomas tour the Portland Air Base and meet some of the Airmen now on duty. The artwork was waiting to be displayed in full until recently, so the two men and a few friends of Robert's finally were able to behold the first set of images on display and take a tour of the maintenance areas around the base.

Helping facilitate the tour, Lt. Col. Joe Harris, the Aircraft Maintenance Commander for the 142nd Fighter Wing, pointed out the impact of the work on display.

"We have our daily meetings in here and already the number of comments that others have made about the work has been terrific," said Harris.

The images depict Airmen at work on a variety of airframes from the F-101 Voodoo to other training aircraft the unit had in that time period. Robert used photographs as references on some images and his own perspective on other pieces.

Harris noted that Airman Thomas' artwork had a unique perspective toward the mission that maintainers have with their airplanes. "They have a direct approach when you look at them," he said.

"I definitely had no idea that when I left the military over 40 years ago that I would be back here and seeing my work on display like this," said Robert Thomas.
"I cannot thank Gene enough for doing all this work; he's been wonderful to reconnect with again," he said.

There are still more images to display as the artist has donated more images to bring the collection to 21 pieces in total. They will be rotated over time in the displayed frames, thus keeping a fresh sense of the project alive over time.

With a wide grin and sense of relief, Chief Thomas commented on the body of work on display, "I feel like now, after all this time the project has come full circle and is finally complete."