Snow least of ex-air controller's battles


January 31, 2000|By Douglas Lamborne | Douglas Lamborne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE GREAT Blizzard of Aught Aught brought some chuckles to James "Hank" Heggins, one of those old-timers who can "remember way back when."

He remembers working the tower as an air traffic controller at Andrews Air Force Base when big snows roared in.

"No matter what, we had to keep that runway open," Heggins said. "We were never closed for him."

"Him" was Air Force One, the president's plane, which Heggins refers to as a personal pronoun: "If he was out of town, he could be called back to Washington at a moment's notice for an emergency."

Heggins' rise to prominence in the tower at Andrews began in North Carolina almost 70 years ago, "in very humble beginnings on a sharecropper's farm."

His family moved to Baltimore, seeking opportunity during the Depression. Heggins was refused entry into the third grade.

"There I was," he said, "a country boy with a North Carolina accent out of a small Southern town. They told me I wasn't good enough and held me back. That really hurt me."

He got his revenge by excelling in class and, eventually, in football and wrestling at Frederick Douglass High School. He passed up graduating from high school by enlisting in the Air Force shortly after the start of the Korean War.

He wanted to go to cook school, but the Air Force had other plans.

"There I was, an 18-year-old black kid from the inner city who had never even been to an airport, and they're sending me to air traffic control school." His graduation picture shows him with seven guys, all white.

After his enlistment, he tried to find comparable work in the Baltimore area, but those kinds of doors were not open -- "a rude awakening," he said. So he went to work at Western Electric, starting out in the janitorial department.

During his eight years there, he met and married Peggy Purnell, and became more involved with her family's businesses in Snow Hill on the lower Eastern Shore.

He became active in her church and got involved in a number of self-help programs. He did sociological research on disadvantaged people that found its way into classrooms at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

But he couldn't stay away from airports. "I liked to take dropouts there, to show them what it was like," he said. During one trip, he heard the Federal Aviation Administration was offering incentives for minorities to become air traffic controllers.

He went back to school to freshen his skills. In his graduation picture, he is the lone black man among 19 white guys.

He worked at Andrews for 24 years, during which he and Peggy moved to Annapolis to shorten the commute. He retired in 1994.

He was asked to join the Annapolis Commission of Aging, which he now chairs. He cooks, composes music and converted his garage into a lounge and workshop where he rebuilds computers.

He also does taxes at H & R Block on West Street. He and his receptionist, Peggy Heggins, made it there through the snow last week. "Kind of quiet in here right now," he said.

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