86-year-old continues 65 years of Air Force service

  • Published
  • By Samuel King Jr.

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – Surrounded by Airmen and civilians, Al Dyson strolled into the center of Eglin’s largest stockroom, his stockroom.  It has his name on it with a giant sign featuring a cartoon visage of the man along with his infamous left-handed slogan ‘Left is always right.’

Leadership and members of the 96th Logistics Readiness Squadron, materiel management and were there to celebrate “Big Al,” his 86th birthday and his continued 65 years of service to his country Jan. 18 here at Eglin.

“He is a dedicated professional, who embodies the value of ‘service before self’ and ‘excellence in all we do’ contributing significantly to Team Eglin’s mission,” said Robert Daniels, 96th LRS Materiel Management Flight chief.

Dyson’s entire working life connects to a stockroom.  The quiet solitude and the input, output and accountability of product is where Dyson says he finds comfort.  It’s where he began at his first job in a grocery store in Wilmington, North Carolina.  Not long after his cousin extolled the Air Force’s virtues to the then-17-year-old left that grocery stockroom behind in 1955 to become an Airman and firefighter apprentice. 

“The Air Force chose my career for me, but I’m glad they did,” said Dyson, whose first assignment was to Keesler AFB, Mississippi.  “I loved being in the fire department, loved every minute of it.”

Dyson said the fire department provided daily challenges because he never knew what the day would bring and what scenario he might face.  After three years and a tour in Japan, Dyson returned to that Wilmington stockroom.

Although he was happy there, the just-married Dyson realized he made a big mistake leaving the Air Force.

“At that time, I made a dollar an hour. My coworker, who worked there for 14 years, made a dollar five an hour,” Dyson explained.  “I could see I had a brighter future with the Air Force.”

Dyson returned to Air Force firefighting in 1960 and served the next 22 years and 12 different tours from Alaska, Tiawan and many other stateside bases including Eglin for the first time in 1971. 

During those tours, Dyson helped battle a fire from a B-52 crash at Kadena AB, Japan during the Vietnam War era.  His proudest firefighting moment was when as the on-scene commander, his firefighters saved a two-year-old from a house fire.

He returned to the local area, this time Hurlburt Field, and ended his firefighting career as a master sergeant and the 1st Special Operations Wing’s deputy fire chief in 1982.

While waiting for a civil service fire department job, Dyson coincidentally found himself once again back in a grocery store stockroom.  This time, at the Hurlburt Field commissary, as a part-time civil service employee.

The low-stress comfort and repetition of stockroom life was more appealing to Dyson than a supervisory position at the fire department.  He accepted a position on Eglin in materiel management where he’d begin his second and current career.

In 1985, materiel management was very analog.  The mission was done via phone calls, hand counts and written receipts.  As the years past, Dyson watched, participated in and eventually fought to keep up with the almost 40 years of changes and innovations to the buildings, to the materiel processes and to the base and community. 

“With his expertise in warehouse operations, Mr. Al easily trained over 3,000 active-duty and reserve materiel management personnel over the last 15 years,” said Daniels, who has worked with Dyson since 2010. “Beyond his professional prowess, he brings an infectious level of energy, joy, excitement, and warmth to the flight.”

Dyson said he’s tried to do his best to keep up with the technology boom of computers, tablets, scannable labels etc., now in the materiel space. However, he admitted he does have to call on Airmen from time to time to help him navigate the current cyber world.

“His adaptability and willingness to learn serve as an inspiration to others, with the sentiment that if Mr. Al can adjust and learn something new, so can everyone else in the flight,” said Daniels. “He is seen as a friend, brother, father, grandfather, and great grandfather for many of the flight members.”

Although technology created vast changes and efficiencies in Air Force supply, it still is essentially the same methodology Dyson learned back in the 1950s.  The task of product movement continues to fulfill Dyson and keeps him going at 86.

“I never wanted any advancements or promotions, I’m happy right here doing what I’m doing,” said the thin, five-foot five-inch Dyson.  “If you like what you’re doing, you ain’t working.”

To friends and family outside of the base and in North Carolina, Dyson is known by his middle name, Eugene.  During his military career, he was, of course, Sergeant Dyson, but during his extended civil service tenure, he’s been known as Al.  Over the years, he affectionately became “Big Al” as a contradictory nickname due to his short stature.

In 2018, with 30 years of working in the same building, Big Al was an institution in Bldg. 600, Eglin’s main supply warehouse.  That year, his materiel management leadership team named the warehouse in his honor with a large sign in the middle of its two-floor primary shelving structure.

“It was just such a big shock and surprise,” remembered Dyson, who now hands out business cards reading “Mr. Al’s Warehouse.”  “I was really happy.  It’s one of my proudest moments.”

During this year’s birthday celebration, Dyson’s leadership added a short bio to his signage. 

As 2024 marks Dyson’s 65th year of service, as far as he’s concerned, he’s not looking to stop any time soon.

“I’m not ready to go home and just sit,” said Dyson, who is still considered the warehouse’s go-to forklift operator.  “As you get old, you must be doing something or you ain’t going to be around much longer.  If I retired here, I’d have to go find something else to do.”

When asked if he does have an end date or goal in mind, Dyson quotes his doctor, when asked the same question.

“I asked my doctor once when he planned to hang it up since I’d been seeing him since the 80s,” said Big Al, who’s accumulated a full year’s worth of sick leave during his 96th LRS tenure.  “He told me ‘when I get lost coming to work, I’m going to retire.’  So, that’s my answer.  When I get lost coming to work, I’ll know its time.”

For the last 40 years here at Eglin, during the work week there were always two constants, aircraft would be in the air and “Big Al” Dyson would be in his stockroom.  Dyson was actually more reliable because he’d be there regardless of weather.

“Mr. Al is a true warrior and someone that goes above and beyond,” said Daniels.