A 2-year-old Kansas boy was playing in his yard when he watched as a four-engine bomber fell from the sky, exploding into a fireball when it crashed just a few blocks away.
That incident instilled a fear of airplanes in young Richard B. Myers, the man who would later become an Air Force pilot, general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Today, he’s also known as Interim President Myers. The 40-year Air Force veteran and Kansas State graduate came back to teach at the university shortly after his retirement in 2005. For Myers, retirement offered him the chance to do more.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my life and fortunate in my career,” Myers said. “I said, ‘I need to give back.’ Too, I wanted to make a little money. So I thought, you don’t accumulate much of a bank account in the military so I wanted to make a bit more money. And then I wanted to spend more time with family and friends.”
K-State offered him the opportunity for all three. Myers said he was approached about a job as Foundation professor of military history and leadership by Sue Peterson, assistant to the president and director of governmental relations, and Bob Krause, former vice president for institutional advancement.
The job also gave Myers the chance to give back to the place he once called home.
“I’m from Kansas City,” Myers said. “I really love my home state. I love Kansas State University, so I thought if there was some way I could help and be involved, that would keep my roots alive. Otherwise, I might have stayed in Virginia where we decided to live and let those roots wither. That would have been sad to me and my wife (Mary Jo).”
The undergrad student
Whereas some students would hang out at Aggieville or Tuttle Creek, Myers, who plays both the piano and tenor saxophone, had a different kind of hangout experience.
“Where I’d be hanging out on most Friday nights, Saturday nights and some Sunday nights would be somewhere in the Topeka area playing in a rock and roll band,” Myers said.
Although the legal drinking age was 18 at the time he was at K-State, Myers said he wasn’t much of an Aggieville bar patron.
“I think there was a place called the Dugout,” Myers said. “I remember being in there, but I wasn’t a regular bar scene kind of guy … I was working, trying to make my way through college, making a few bucks working in the band, which I enjoyed … I loved going to Tuttle Creek and just look(ing) out over the lake.”
Myers was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon and it was through an intramural football game that he met his wife Mary Jo, according to his book “Eyes on the Horizon.” Myers said she accompanied him to a show once, but didn’t really care for the experience.
“Someone asked her to take tickets and stamp the hands of people who left and wanted to come back in,” Myers said. “She did that and decided it wasn’t very fun.”
Though Myers came to school with the idea of becoming a veterinarian, he soon discovered another path.
“Vet medicine appealed (to me) because I loved animals of all sorts,” Myers said. “I thought if I could help animals, it would be a good match. But then I went to the engineering building (at the time), Seaton Hall, and became an engineering student.”
Myers earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from K-State in 1965. It was during his time here that he was also involved with the ROTC program.
“Nobody in my family other than an uncle had served, so I didn’t get much advice on what to do,” Myers said. “So I took ROTC and I planned on doing the two-year mandatory and then not doing it but with Vietnam going on and the draft, I said, ‘I better stick with this. It might give me a choice (of military branch).'”
It was his senior year when Myers was informed he was qualified for pilot training. He trained at the Manhattan Regional Airport and was hooked. The ROTC recruit who used to be afraid of airplanes now wanted to fly them.
“The first flight was everything,” Myers said. “I said, ‘Wow, this is cool.'”
The Air Force veteran
Myers went on to serve 40 years as a pilot and later general in the Air Force. He said there are certain qualities and traits about the military that appealed to him and carried over to aspects that affected his life.
“In the military, integrity really counts,” Myers said. “You’ve got to count on the man on your left or the woman on your right sometimes just to survive, but certainly to get the mission done. So people who don’t have strong character, don’t have great integrity, you learn not to trust.”
Myers said another aspect of the military he enjoyed was the value placed on skill and ability rather than race, religion or background.
“I liked the fact that it was a meritocracy,” Myers said. “You were promoted into more responsibility and perhaps more rank based on how you could contribute to the mission, not based on where you went to school, not the color of your skin, not in many cases your gender. What do you bring to the organization? Otherwise, how could an ROTC graduate from Kansas State University go on to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?”
Most of all, Myers said the military taught him how to look beyond himself to find purpose.
“You do serve because of this notion of serving something bigger than yourself,” Myers said. “That always felt good to me. I never had trouble getting up in the middle of the night and (going to) train somewhere when I thought about what the ultimate purpose of what our service was, and that was to protect the country.”
It was less than a month after 9/11 that Myers officially took the job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest ranking military officer. It was during this time that he served as the principal military adviser to President George W. Bush.
After serving for four years, Myers retired and returned to K-State.
The interim president
Like many universities in the state and across the country, K-State has been set back by state funding cuts. For Myers, this makes his philanthropy work as interim president even more important.
“I understand how important philanthropy is to our mission here at K-State,” Myers said. “A lot of my time here in the first several months has been on fundraising trips … I think it’s important for any president of the university to do that.”
Myers said there were some reservations at the K-State Foundation a couple years back when the suggestion was made for a fundraising goal of $1 billion for the university.
“When we set that, there was an audible gasp in the leadership team that was sitting around when we were trying to decide what our goal should be,” Myers said. “We’re going to reach the one billion goal and we’re going to reach it early. So we’ll be over our one billion goal in the timeframe we set for ourselves.”
When the opportunity came for Myers to serve as interim president of K-State, his family’s first thoughts on the matter were clear.
“The family’s first reaction was, ‘You’re too old. Why would you do this?'” Myers said. “So that was the first reaction. But within an hour, it actually turned into, ‘You might really like that.'”
Although Myers’ family lives mostly in Virginia, he said he’s always near to them.
“I had two little grandkids fly by themselves into Manhattan, a 10-year-old and 7-year-old,” Myers said. “If I can’t be with my family, I’m going to bring them out here, by darn. They’ll all be here for Thanksgiving, all except my son and the daughter-in-law. But the others, the five grandchildren, two sons-in-law and two daughters. We’re going to be here on Thanksgiving.”
Regarding his grandchildren, Myers said he hopes to make them Wildcats.
“I am determined, of the five grandkids, maybe convince a couple to come to K-State,” Myers said. “That’s part of my indoctrination program to get them out here, show them some things, introduce them to some of our leaders. You never know. I’d love it if a couple would say, ‘You know, I’m going to K-State.'”
Though he has only served in the position a few months, Myers said he has enjoyed it so far.
“I love it,” Myers said. “People told me, ‘It’s going to be hard,’ and it is. But it’s really fun. If you’re passionate about something, just throw yourself into it and it usually works out okay.”
Given his experience, Myers has some advice for students new and old to K-State.
“Part of being at a university is finding out what you’re passionate about,” Myers said. “You may come in with some idea of what you’re passionate about, but through opportunities and through reaching out through other experiences that you try to have, you may find there are other things you are more passionate about.”