KILLEEN — Former Central Texas College chancellor Jim Anderson was pumping gas for 75 cents an hour as a teenager back in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Penn., when he decided there had to be a better way to make a living.
“I graduated from high school (in 1954) at age 16 and tried to enlist in the Air Force, but they wouldn’t take me until I turned 17,” said Anderson, a longtime resident of Killeen. “I didn’t know anything about the military, but I didn’t have any (career) prospects, so I thought the military sounded as good as anything.
“My mother couldn’t wait. She was worried about me because she knew I wasn’t going to make a life for myself working at a gas station.
“She was wonderful; raising me as a single parent. She was a nurse, and she had diabetes, so she wasn’t a real healthy person. She knew it was better for me to go have someone else look after me.”
Now 83 years old, Anderson reported to Sampson Air Force Base in New York for basic training, and two years later was assigned to duty in Japan. He got married at age 18 to Lois, also a Pittsburgh native, and when he got orders for Japan, the young couple — who had recently become parents for the first time — faced their first major complication.
“In those days, the Air Force didn’t pay to send her (spouse) because I didn’t have enough rank, so we pulled everything we could get together. Sold our clothes, our shoes, our furniture, and bought her a ticket so she and our daughter could come with me.”
After serving 10 years in the enlisted ranks, Anderson decided he wanted to become an officer. He went to various schools and training, became a distinguished graduate of Officer Training School, and found himself wearing lieutenant bars.
“I decided that officers made more money and I probably would like to be one, so I went to a thing called Airman Education and Commissioning and got a year’s college education at night, applied and got accepted for the Institute of Technology, went to Michigan for two years, got a (college) degree, went to OTS (Officer Training School) for 14 weeks and came out a lieutenant.
“At that point, I had almost 11 years service. But I got a regular commission because I was a distinguished graduate.
“In the ensuing years, I went to the Institute of Technology two more times, taught at the Air Force Academy, taught at Air University, got a Ph.D. in economics courtesy of the Air Force, had three more overseas tours — one in the Philippines, one in Turkey and one in Spain.
“I was offered a fifth one (overseas assignment) when I had 32 years’ service. I was in Washington (D.C.) at the time, and they wanted me to go to Germany for a year and then come back and become deputy director of budget. There was potential for another promotion — not guaranteed but the potential — but I thought, ‘You know, 32 years is probably enough.’
“I still wasn’t 50 years old, and I thought, ‘If you want to go do something else, this might be your last chance.’”
At the time, Lois was working her way up the ladder with Central Texas College, a two-year school which also has programs across the country and worldwide for educating military personnel. She was offered a job at the main campus in Killeen and convinced her husband to come with her.
“I came with the promise that I would stay here six months — never dreaming that six months later, I would become interim chancellor and a month or so after that, chancellor,” Anderson said. “So that six-month visit became 25 years.”
Anderson, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel, served as CTC chancellor from 1987 to February 2012. He might have stayed on even longer except for a tragedy that caused him to re-evaluate his life.
“Things were changing at CTC, but (retirement) wasn’t something that was foremost on my mind,” Anderson said. “Then my wife (of 56 years) contracted cancer, and that was the impetus for me to retire. Her (2011) death changed my life around, obviously, and I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to stay at CTC without her.
“She was a dean; retired from the college. She was probably the best educator in our family. I just couldn’t imagine staying there without her being there.”
Although he might have stepped down a little earlier than he would have liked, Anderson says he is proud of his accomplishments while at CTC, which was founded in 1965.
“We didn’t raise taxes for 19 years,” Anderson said. “We had probably one of the lowest tuition (rates) of any community college in Texas. We were the fourth-largest employer in Killeen. We had a budget that was about $185 million. We were a leader in education in distance-learning back when most schools didn’t know what distance learning was — we were already doing it.
“We were a forerunner in military education for years. We had the contract in Europe, the far East, the entire Navy, (at) bases all over the country in all four services.
“I think we were an extremely successful community college. For a little town like Killeen, we were on the map.”
Now retired but possibly busier than ever, Anderson devotes much of his time these days to community service, volunteering for things like Boys and Girls Club board of directors, Goodwill Central Texas Goodwill, Leon Valley Boy Scouts commissioner, national board of the Retired Officers Association, Killeen and Harker Heights chambers of commerce, Fort Hood’s Good Neighbor program, CTC Foundation board, Association of the United States Army, and chair of the International Educators’ Hall of Fame.
The father of two and grandfather of three also keeps his hand in education by teaching an online economics course at CTC.
He has come a long way from the days of filling gas tanks back in Pittsburgh.
“I kind of miss that once in a while,” he said. “I got that job when I wasn’t old enough to drive yet. Back in those days, when you pulled into the gas station, I ran out and pumped your gas for you – cleaned the windshield, checked the oil and kicked the tires.
“My only regret with my military career is that I wish I could have perhaps gotten commissioned a little bit earlier, which might have made a difference in my decision about leaving. I knew what an enlisted person was because I had been one, and I had a pretty good idea what a commissioned officer was. …
“But I loved every single day that I was in the United States Air Force. Every day. When I went in, I didn’t even know what color the uniforms were, and there certainly weren’t any Air Force bases in Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been really fortunate in my life, and so I like to help other folks the best I can. I like to think I am an asset to the students I have in my class — at least I try to be.
“You’ve got to give back a little to your community. That used to sound corny when I’d hear people say it, but they’re right. Everybody doesn’t have as much as I have, and I like to do the best I can to help.
“When I first retired, I thought I would play golf seven days a week, but it doesn’t work that way. I’m involved in so much, sometimes I can’t even keep track. I don’t know now how I ever had time to work.”