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Recently promoted Fourth Air Force commander reflects on childhood as small-town paper boy

  • Published
  • By MSgt. Linda E. Welz
  • Fourth Air Force public affairs
Forty-four years ago, Eric Crabtree was a junior high school student with an after school job delivering The Dunkirk Evening Observer to residents in his hometown of Cassadaga, N.Y., a 700-person town on the shores of Lower Cassadaga Lake in the Alleghany Mountain foothills near Lake Erie. Eighteen months ago, Brig. Gen. Eric Crabtree took command of 4th Air Force and on Feb. 2, he was promoted to the rank of major general.

The paperboy-turned-major general attributes much of his success in the Air Force Reserve to seeking opportunities, hard work, and being in the right place and doing a good job at the right time.

"I remember walking through waist-deep snow in Cassadaga to deliver papers in the winter. I would get compliments from people for delivering their papers inside the doors where the papers wouldn't get wet," he said. "That's where it started and that's the philosophy that I've carried through my whole life. You have to do the best that you can do at whatever job it is and seek opportunities for advancement."

General Crabtree's first big opportunity came as a direct result of his job as a paperboy. After reading a Dunkirk Evening Observer flyer promoting a scholarship program to the Millbrook School, a prestigious private boarding school in Millbrook, N.Y., the 15-year-old asked his parents, Wendell and Ruth Crabtree, if he could apply.

After completing the application and interview process, General Crabtree was selected as a scholarship recipient. That fall, he started at the Millbrook School alongside a student body that included members of the Roosevelt and Kennedy families.

"It was really a great opportunity and a good experience for me, a kid from a small town in upstate New York, to get to go to this school. My grandmother and aunts were flabbergasted that I was going to go live away from home for school at 15 years old," General Crabtree said.

While at Millbrook, General Crabtree had to be apart from the idyllic lifestyle he had enjoyed along side his five younger siblings, riding motorcycles in the woods and boating on the lakes, but to him, the sacrifice was worth it.

"The Millbrook headmaster told us that Eric was one of the finest boys who ever attended that school. Life there was different than he was used to, but he wanted to go back because he realized he was in a good academic program there," his mother said.

Following his graduation from the Millbrook School, General Crabtree attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English. After, General Crabtree, who had always loved aviation and had grown up hearing his father's World War II B-29 stories, joined the Air Force.

"We discussed the military during our teen years. I thought it would be a great idea for him, but not for me. He was proud of his father's service. We even looked at his dad's medals and patches in a cigar box once," said Bill Andrews, who grew up with General Crabtree and still resides in Cassadaga.

John Neitupski, another of General Crabtree's closest friends from Cassadaga, said he was not surprised when General Crabtree chose to serve in the military.

"After serving in the Army, I could see why he made a career of the military. That type of organization fits his personality. With Eric, everything had to be a certain way and he was always right. For what he's experienced in his life, his demeanor is still the same. That's saying a lot," Neitupski said.

General Crabtree was commissioned through Officer Training School as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force on Dec. 13, 1974. He completed undergraduate navigator training at now-closed Mather Air Force Base, Calif.

Eighteen assignments and 35 years later, he has moved up seven ranks to his current position as Fourth Air Force commander, where he manages the Air Force Reserve's long-range airlift and air refueling units located throughout the continental United States, Hawaii and Guam.

"I remember a general once asked me what my career goals were. I told him I'd like to get to the point of being a wing commander. He said, 'Why not the commander of the Air Force Reserve Command?' I never thought about that, but he was right. You have to set your goals for whatever the next level is and keep working toward that, adjusting as you move up through the chain of opportunity," General Crabtree said.

Becoming a numbered Air Force commander and a two-star general were things General Crabtree considered as he progressed through 20 years of Air Reserve Technician positions, but the opportunities were few with only 25 two-star positions in the whole command.

"You keep working and doing the best that you can to try and get there but you just don't know whether you'll really make it or not until the call comes in," he said.

When the news of his promotion reached the local community, he received a phone call from Rep. Ken Calvert (Calif. 45th District). The congressman congratulated him and said he looked forward to working with and hearing General Crabtree's advice on military issues that affect the communities.

"March Air Reserve Base serves a vital national mission in deployment, logistics and support to our troops. Locally, March is an important part of the community and has established a great relationship through events such as the air show and others that bring the community together. Major General Crabtree will be a tremendous asset in further facilitating the relationship between our region and the base," Congressman Calvert wrote in an e-mail.

General Crabtree said the biggest change his promotion brings is the ability to participate in higher-level discussion groups. Having attended a number of community events during the past year, the general is empathetic to local citizens' concerns. He also said he wants local community members to know the important role Fourth Air Force members are fulfilling across the globe in both military and humanitarian capacities.

One of the airlift capabilities under General Crabtree's command is the C-40 mission at Scott AFB, Ill., which is responsible for transporting executive level government officials and congressional members as well as combatant commanders as they travel between Europe and Africa.

General Crabtree is also involved with the Air Force Reserve Command's "Roles, Mission and Reorganization Study" he says is going to fundamentally change the way the NAF operates.

"Ever since I started the job a year ago, we've been involved in that discussion. There has been a lot of in-depth discussion and scenario creation to try and determine what the role of the NAF should be," he said. "How do you provide the best product for readiness to the Air Force?"

On the immediate horizon, the general said one of his big challenges will be replacing wing commanders who are due to retire or transfer, as well as replacing their subordinates who will move up the chain of command.

Another challenge is several of the Fourth Air Force wings that are undergoing conversions. The 445th Airlift Wing, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for example, is converting from C-5s to C-17s. The 433rd Airlift Wing, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, will change their schoolhouse in response to the decreased number of C-5s, General Crabtree said.

"Right now we are dealing with the surge in Afghanistan. That's huge because it involves another round of mobilizations and a lot higher level of activity while trying to match training requirements with higher levels of operational activity. That's a challenge for flying units," he said.

In addition to working on current challenges within his command, the general must look to his own future and what opportunities may arise.

"I'm getting close to retirement. Although this promotion and assignment will carry me to beyond age sixty, there could still be some opportunities coming up because of retirements in the command. Whether I'll be selected to go to one of those positions or not I don't know," he said.

One thing that won't be changing in the near future is the newspaper he used to deliver as a boy, The Dunkirk Evening Observer, now The Observer, which has thus far survived in the world of new media.

General Crabtree said he still reads the local newspaper every day, including reading The Observer when he's home visiting his mother.

"She still gets the same newspaper. It's just a small local paper, not a huge thing, but it's still in print and she still subscribes to it every day. For people in small towns, it's a ritual every day to open their local papers and read the news of what's gone on in the communities around them. They put a lot of stock in the availability of news through those small papers," he said.