From the Fall 1995 UNO Alum
By Shelly Steig | Photo by Eric FrancisFrom the Fall 1995
When Michael Kudlacz graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1971, he never dreamed of returning to Omaha a VIP.
Not that he was without ambition. Since childhood, Kudlacz had known that he was made for military life, envisioning himself as a gutsy pilot flying dangerous missions. As his career progressed, this ambition drove him up the U.S. Air Force chain of command. Nothing seemed to deter him. Not even a nightmarish move to Loring Air Force, Maine, that destroyed all his family’s belongings.
Kudlacz describes what happened that dark day:
“They parked the moving van in the warehouse over the weekend,” he says. “Someone decided that one of the braces under the trailer needed to be welded. So he started to weld the brace. One of the boxes inside the trailer caught on fire. When he was done welding, he stopped and locked up the warehouse. Meanwhile, the inside of the trailer continued to burn, and it wasn’t until the next day that they finally saw the smoke coming out of the warehouse. We lost everything we owned.
“Over the years I had made most of our furniture—it’s been a hobby for some time. I haven’t had time since to replace it. The kids and Beth lost treasures, too. Kimberly lost her entire stuffed animal collection.”
While devastating, the fire did not destroy his spirit. Kudlacz recently moved his family again, the 13th time in the last 23 years they have changed addresses. Yet this time the move wasn’t to another strange base. This time the move was a return home. The young UNO graduate with stars in his eyes came back with stars on his shoulders. He came back a VIP.
Brig. Gen. Select Michael Kudlacz took command of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base on May 17 during an afternoon ceremony filled with all the pomp and circumstance the military could muster after a cold, rainy morning. Offutt is the largest wing in Air Combat Command, with RC-135, EC-135, E-4 and C-21 airplanes flying missions around the world. Both Offutt and Omaha recognized the traditional passing of command as a significant event. More than 32,000 military members, spouses, children and retirees pour $1 billion annually into the Omaha economy. So, when Kudlacz accepted command, he assumed roles as “mayor” of Offutt and “ambassador” to Omaha.
Kudlacz sits in his well-furnished office. He has been on the job for almost 11 hours, poring over information, attending meetings and solving problems. There was no overlap with the previous commander, so Kudlacz must manage the day-to-day operations while learning about the people, the mission and the planes. As commander of a flying wing and a selected general, Kudlacz has reached an elite echelon. Anyone who enters the room salutes him for the rank on his uniform’s shoulder boards, as well as his position.
An Omaha native, Kudlacz traces his interest in military service to his childhood. Early exposure to different branches of the armed forces fueled his fascination. His father was in the Navy during World War II and loved talking about his experiences.
“To this day, my father will tell you that was the best time he ever had in his life,” Kudlacz says, speaking slowly and deliberately as he relaxes on the arm of his chair.
Kudlacz later learned about the Army when his father worked as a civilian lawyer for the Army Corps of Engineers. He became interested in the Air Force as he accompanied the Rev. Paul Begley, pastor of Assumption Church, to perform Mass at the Air Force radar station in North Omaha.
If providence initially led Kudlacz to the Air Force, then determination made his dream a reality. He wanted to be a pilot—and pilot training was the brass ring that he could grab only with a college degree.
The first of seven children in a Catholic family, Kudlacz originally pursued an education at Creighton University, receiving a partial scholarship to attend there. But after the first semester he had exhausted his funds. Rather than quit college, however, Kudlacz turned to UNO, a more affordable choice that also gave him the chance to live at home. After taking a semester off to work full time, Kudlacz had saved enough money to enroll at UNO in the fall of 1967.
The years 1967-71 were tumultuous times for America - and UNO. Civil unrest touched the campus as long-needed growth added to the angst felt by students and professors. In 1968, the campus changed its name from Omaha University to UNO upon joining the University of Nebraska system. While the Vietnam War raged in Southeast Asia, angry citizens raged against the war. At a peaceful demonstration on the UNO campus Oct. 15, 1969, students carried signs that said, “Work for Peace.” Kudlacz chose to work for peace via a different route; he joined Air Force ROTC.
Mike Hall, a fellow ROTC cadet with Kudlacz, says, “There were two schools of thought. One of them was the protesters’ anti-American policy in disagreement with the war. The other school of thought was supportive of American policy. Mike and I were of that school. It was pretty clear-cut. We wanted to defend our country.”
Kudlacz was determined to accomplish that goal as best he could. From the start he distinguished himself as someone special. He received the first of many military awards on Jan. 31, 1969, when he was inducted into Arnold Air Society, a select organization for members of ROTC. Three months later he was awarded the Cadet of the Year trophy.
At the same time, Kudlacz was pursuing a relationship with a coed with the same vigor that he attacked military life. During his junior year, Kudlacz spotted Beth Shoemaker walking across campus. “I decided to meet her, so I asked a guy ‘Who is that?’” relates Kudlacz. He soon found out and took her on their first date, to Homecoming.
With two jobs, school and the ROTC, Kudlacz had little time for socializing, much less dating. But Kudlacz says with a boyish grin, “I kept my priorities straight and spent as much time with Beth as possible.” Hall met his future wife, Sue, at about the same time. The couples often double-dated, or simply hung out at the student center between classes.
“We’d drink coffee and eat M&Ms and Hostess cupcakes,” Hall says, “We solved a lot of world problems sitting in the Ouampi room.”
The same year he met his future wife, Kudlacz declared Law Enforcement and Corrections (now known as Criminal Justice) as his major. Trying to balance school, relationships and work was difficult.
“My schedule was so crazy. Most semesters I would start class at 7:30 in the morning. I’d go until 11 a.m. or so, then I would go to work. Then I’d come back for afternoon classes and then go to work at night. My four years at UNO were a tough time. The school was growing and, of course, I was trying to get a degree and work at the same time. I had to work to afford school. I would not call myself an honor student at UNO. Some things had to give, and unfortunately most of the time it was studying. But I was bound and determined to graduate. I really wanted a college degree very badly.” Kudlacz says.
In 1971 he received his degree and headed for Webb Air Force Base in Texas for his pilot training. Most pinnacles have a price and his was time away from Beth, who was one year from graduating at UNO. During that time, Kudlacz earned his wings and was assisgned to Beale Air Force Base, Calif. He returned to Omaha for Beth’s graduation and their wedding.
The intrusion of the military made for a short honeymoon. Because Kudlacz had to attend survival and weapons schools at other bases, it was three months before they lived together. Early in their marriage, Kudlacz flew combat missions over Southeast Asia. Then came their nomadic existence, those 13 times packing and unpacking all their possessions. Countless temporary assignments at other bases left Beth alone to care for their two children, Christopher and Kimberly. Fortunately, she did not enter such a life with blinders on, having been a member of Angel Flight, a women’s auxiliary group to the Arnold Air Society, at UNO. What she learned about the military and the pledge she made to advance and promote interest in the Air Force helped her weather some of the more difficult times.
“Without Beth’s and the children’s support and understanding through all the uprooting and all the time away from home, I’d be out of luck,” Kudlacz says. With their support, Kudlacz decided in 1979 to make the military his career.
“The airlines were hiring large numbers of Air Force people,” he says. “A lot of my friends interviewed for the airlines and were being hired for the airlines. I made a conscious decision at that time that I enjoyed what I was doing and my wife seemed to be enjoying it—which was important—and we were having a good time. So I decided I was going to stay in the Air Force and I haven’t thought about it since.”
Throughout his military career, Kudlacz pursued success with the same dogged determination he demonstrated at UNO. The star he will soon wear is the ultimate achievement for any military officer. The Air Force rank structure can be compared to an inverted funnel; the higher an officer goes, the more difficult it becomes to squeeze through. When competing for general, the chance of pinning on a star decreases exponentially.
Kudlacz steadily worked his way up the rank structure, beginning as an RF-4 and B-52 pilot. After graduation from Air Command and Staff College he moved into leadership positions as commander of the 62nd Bombardment Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.; deputy director for Politico-Military Affairs at the Pentagon; operations group commander at Loring; then commander of the 416th Bomb Wing at Griffiss Air Force Base, N.Y. His sterling performance at Griffiss attracted the attention of his superiors, who assigned him to take over the 55th Wing at Offutt.
The assignment was a pleasant surprise.
“Omaha was not in my mind because I have not been in this business - the type of business the wing does (strategic reconnaissance) - so I didn’t think I’d come here. But I’m glad we did. We all enjoy Omaha very much. It’s got everything you want in a big town, but still has a lot of pockets of small-town atmosphere. We’ll probably end up retiring here. After living in 13 different places, I haven’t found a place I like better.”
Although the Air Force stationed him at Offutt twice before, this homecoming was particularly sweet. Kudlacz and Hall, who still lives in the area, have kept in touch throughout the years. They were in each other’s weddings, and Hall built Kudlacz’s Papillion home in 1983. If Kudlacz happened to be in town when the fish were biting, the two friends would bait their hooks and head for a tranquil spot where they continued pondering the world’s problems.
Hall says he figured it was just a matter of time until his former UNO classmate returned to Omaha with stars on his shoulders.
“Anyone who has known him for any length of time knew that he would achieve the rank he has,” Hall says. “I realized way back in ROTC that someday he would be a general. Quite frankly, he handles it as I always thought he would.”
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