Childhood passion grows into vocation

The Rev. Dr. Don Duford was present at his son’s lecture on the history and restoration of the Memphis Belle at the Champaign Aviation Museum on April 26. Although son Jeff is the curator of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and Don is the priest-in-charge of the Episcopal churches in Urbana and Mechanicsburg, Don said they are joined by a shared feeling that their chosen profession is more than a career but in fact a life-long vocation.

“When he was 10 years old I took him to the air museum because he loved aircraft,” said Don. “I had a traveling job at the time and I would buy him a model aircraft on every trip I took and he would put it together and we’d hang it from the ceiling of his bedroom. He loved aircraft and he wanted to go to that museum, so on his 10th birthday I took him down. As soon as he walked in to the beginning, with the early aircraft, he knew every one of them and he was telling me all about them. He wasn’t reading off any of the signs. He said he learned it from the books I had given him, and from the models, and he said he wanted to work there.”

Don also said that when he finally sold their house in Michigan, the prospective buyer offered to pay the asking price provided he could keep the model airplanes in Jeff’s old bedroom. Don and his wife now life in Marysville.

Don informed his son, the middle child between two sisters who are now teachers, that if he wanted to work at the Air Force Museum he would have to get a good education. In 1999 he graduated summa cum laude from Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan, then transferred to Eastern Michigan University and graduated summa cum laude with a master’s degree in history and political science.

Post-college career

According to Don, Jeff considered getting a doctorate, then decided he really didn’t need it. He planned to join the Air Force as a navigator because his glasses disqualified him from being a pilot. Jeff left his apartment in Michigan, sold his car, and moved back in with his parents for what was supposed to be one week, only to find out that his training would be delayed four months because of a pilot’s course.

Don had spent many years in the food service industry and said he could get his son a job with a company car. Jeff became a retail salesman for a company that offered him $65,000 a year to start a management training program.

At that time a historian/curator position opened at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Dayton, that Jeff was qualified for. He was one of 150 people who applied and obtained a telephone interview. Don said he helped his son study by posting note-cards with questions and answers on them, but the interviewers only asked him 10 questions. About a month later, Jeff was hired as museum curator.

“Another interesting thing is after they hired him, he was there a year and the general in charge there asked Jeff to (reconfigure) out the museum, because Jeff was just so smart about that stuff,” said Don. “Then the general asked him, after he was there about a year and a half, if he would go take officer’s training for three months as a civilian just so that he would know more about the Air Force.”

Jeff asked his father for advice, and Don said that the general was trying to make Jeff part of the family, and that it was a good opportunity. Jeff then went to Montgomery, Alabama, for training, and at the end of three months had so excelled.

Memphis Belle

Jeff has been historian and curator of the museum about 20 years, more than 12 of which he has been focused on the restoration of the Memphis Belle. His office is on Wright-Patterson Air Base rather than at the museum, where he has planned numerous exhibits including those celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Korean War.

“He can connect with people, and I think the most important thing is he feels an obligation to make sure the history of the Air Force is preserved,” said Don. “He knows every one of the aircraft, and if someone has a question about an aircraft it’s his job to tell them exactly how it was. He researches and makes sure he gets it exactly like it was when it was in service. Like the Memphis Belle, it has to be exactly like it was when it came back to the United States. That’s why they had to strip that plane down to the body, and then it was repainted.”

Don said that Jeff believes restoring the Memphis Belle is the greatest job he will ever have in his career, and that he will likely stay in the curator position until he retires.

“In World War II the whole country was involved; everybody was involved,” said Don. “You had to get tickets to get your food and your gasoline, so everybody was in the war. We had a lot of soldiers and a lot of troops and a lot of airmen, so when the Memphis Belle came back from Europe they were really smart. They took it on a tour around the country to raise money for U.S. war bonds, and so it became really famous and everybody knew about the Memphis Belle. Most people my age or a little younger would know exactly what the Memphis Belle was. Probably a lot of younger people really don’t know a lot about it, but once it goes on display in the museum those who don’t know about it are going to learn about it, and that’s really what it’s all about.”

“Having anything to do with the Memphis Belle is beyond a career for me. It’s a life experience,” said Jeff. “I had a model of the Memphis Belle when I was a little kid, I had books about B-17s when I was young. My dad brought me down to the museum when I was a little kid, and if there was one restoration that I could have anything to do with it would be the Memphis Belle. It’s not just me. There are craftsmen on the restoration and exhibit staff who feel the same way. This is really a sacred project for us, so for me to have anything to do with this is beyond a career. It is a life experience.”

Following the April 26 lecture, Don said that Jeff had done a good job and was in a great position to serve the country and the Air Force.

“I’m really proud of him because of what he’s done with his life,” said Don. “I see my life as a life of service to others, and I see his life as a life of service, because he’s preserving the history of the Air Force. He’s keeping people informed about the Air Force, and it’s one of our major military forces in our country. That’s how he feels, like he’s really serving the country, and I think that’s great. “

Jeff Duford, left, curator of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, stands by his father, Rev. Dr. Don Duford, right, priest-in-charge of the Episcopal churches in Urbana and Mechanicsburg, following Jeff’s lecture at the Champaign Aviation Museum on April 26. Duford, left, curator of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, stands by his father, Rev. Dr. Don Duford, right, priest-in-charge of the Episcopal churches in Urbana and Mechanicsburg, following Jeff’s lecture at the Champaign Aviation Museum on April 26.
Air Force Museum curator and his dad talk about road to National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

By Christopher Selmek

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Christopher Selmek can be reached at 937-508-2304

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