History through the eyes of an Airman

Chuck Hager, former Airman, sits at a local coffee shop April 19, 2016, in Clovis, N.M. Hager was commissioned to paint both the ‘Welcome to Clovis Air Force Base’ and ‘Welcome to Cannon Air Force Base’ signs during his time at the base from 1954 to 1957. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz)

Chuck Hager, former Airman, sits at a local coffee shop April 19, 2016, in Clovis, N.M. Hager was commissioned to paint both the ‘Welcome to Clovis Air Force Base’ and ‘Welcome to Cannon Air Force Base’ signs during his time at the base from 1954 to 1957. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz)

Chuck Hager, former Airman, holds a photo of himself painting the ‘Welcome to Clovis Air Force Base’ sign at a local coffee house April 19, 2016, in Clovis, N.M. The welcome sign, which used to be mounted at the base’s main gate, was repainted by Hager in 1957 when the base was renamed as Cannon Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz)

Chuck Hager, former Airman, holds a photo of himself painting the ‘Welcome to Clovis Air Force Base’ sign at a local coffee house April 19, 2016, in Clovis, N.M. The welcome sign, which used to be mounted at the base’s main gate, was repainted by Hager in 1957 when the base was renamed as Cannon Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Leaving behind the sunshine of a too-hot-to-be-10 a.m. high plains morning, Chuck Hager, a longtime Clovis resident and recently retired business owner, sauntered through the heavy double doors of a local coffee house, causing heads throughout the shop to swivel in his direction.

Wearing a sky-high cowboy hat and a crisp white button-down tucked neatly into jet black jeans, one could safely assume this particular gentleman was not commonly overlooked.

Catching attention was nothing new for Hager. His life was brimming with stories of ordinary circumstances made into extraordinary experiences. One such story, particularly cherished by the Tennessee-born painter, unfolded right here at the 27th Special Operations Wing, known then as Clovis Air Force Base.

“I entered the service at 19 years old,” Hager recalled. “They sent me here to Clovis AFB in 1954 and I spent about three months working on the flightline as an airplane mechanic.”

Having completed an apprenticeship to become a sign painter before he enlisted in the Air Force, Hager found it difficult to adjust to the highly technical aspects of flightline life.

“When we were out on the line, we often worked on the wing commander’s bird,” Hager said. “I had been a painter as a civilian, and knew it was a skill not many would have. One day an idea struck me: I wanted to change my situation and I had the means, so I painted the commander’s name across the side of his plane in bright blue.”

The plan worked like a charm.

“The wing commander had my supervisor cut orders for me to go work on a special project for a few months,” Hager said. “I painted the Clovis Air Force Base sign that stood at the front gate. You can’t tell in the pictures, but the sign was really something. It was nice enough to look at in the light, but some of it was done with paint that glowed in the dark, making it even more eye-catching after sundown.”

Throughout the course of his project, Hager build a rapport with the wing commander and was commissioned to complete several additional artistic tasks, including designing and painting a second welcome sign when the base was renamed from Clovis to Cannon in 1957. Eventually, Hager’s work earned him an off-the-cuff promotion.

“After I had done a few projects for him, the commander saw to it that I got a promotion,” Hager said. “My experience working with him was an excellent one. He went on to become a general and do great things as a commander in Vietnam. I was proud to be able to say that I had worked with a man like him, and could call him a friend.”

Hager received orders to Alaska after a couple years in Clovis, but was able to forego them and remain in the town he had come to love. Two of Hager’s four children were delivered at the base hospital and, day by day, the family’s attachment to the small eastern New Mexico community strengthened.

“Even then, Clovis was home to me,” Hager said. “I loved the people; they would welcome you in town without a second thought. I was going to stay here as long as I possibly could.”

Orders to Alaska came again in 1957 and this time, Hager had no choice but to accept them.

“We went on to Alaska and had a fine time,” Hager said. “I continued to paint, and after eight good years my service came to an end. I had never forgotten Clovis and when we were able, my family and I came back.”

Hager went on to record a chart-topping country music album which landed him a place in the Clovis museum of history, meet several sitting United States presidents and own a successful sign painting business. Though he has enough stories to fill the 10-gallon hat that tops his head, for Hager, all roads led to Clovis.

“I’m retired now and I do just about whatever I want, but I still feel the same about this place, these people, as I always have,” Hager said. “It’s just home.”