WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - "What can we do to make your day a little nicer?"
That's the greeting you get when you reach Howie Franklin by phone. As the Director of Cape Fear Regional Jetport in Oak Island, Franklin is all about customer service. It is engrained in his mindset. For nearly two decades, Franklin served the most powerful men in the world, on board the most recognizable airplane in the world, as Flight Steward and later Chief Steward aboard Air Force One. He made history by working under five Presidents of the United States before retiring in 1994, after a 29-year career in the Air Force.
"Your job was not to bother, your job was to serve, and we understood that," Franklin says about working with the VIPs.
Franklin grew up on Long Island in New York, and spent his early years working at a Yacht Club on Fire Island. He spotted many of the rich and famous of the times, including Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. Franklin gained experience there working in food service, learning from some world-renowned chefs who prepared meals for the high-profile members of the club. When then 20-year-old Franklin received his draft notice, he considered food service as a career when volunteering for the U.S. Air Force.
Assignments improved as Franklin used his previous food service experience to impress higher ups in the military. "The guys and gals in my career field had the experience they learned in the Air Force. I learned everything the Air Force taught me, plus I had this other knowledge. I would make New York Deli sandwiches. They were used to sandwiches with a slice of cheese and a slice of ham, and I was building them deli sandwiches. They appreciated it and that gave me an edge."
That led to being assigned to the 89th Military Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base (now Joint Base Andrews) near Washington, DC. Before Franklin flew as steward to presidents, he flew with other military and government officials, including Dr. Henry Kissinger.
"That was the most exciting moment of my life to this day," Franklin says about his experiences flying "shuttle diplomacy" assignments with the former Secretary of State. "He was warlord management, ruled by fear and intimidation. My itinerary would say Andrews to London and "as directed". I'm supporting all the food service and needs service to this person, and I don't know where the hell I'm going! I'd get up the next morning and we'd go to Moscow, then we'd go to Tel Aviv, and that evening I'm in Aswan, Egypt. I finally convinced the state department 'look, I don't need to know where we're going, I need to know when we're going!' They understood that. "
As Flight Steward, and later Chief Steward, Franklin's group would plan the menus for presidential trips on board Air Force One. On foreign trips, Franklin would also be responsible for buying food to be prepared on board the airplane. The first president he served on the famous plane was Gerald Ford, in 1976.
"I flew with him as a congressman, he was in congress for a long time," Franklin said. "So I knew him as a congressman, he becomes Vice-President and he knows me as a steward. Then he got appointed to the presidency and six months later, while I was flying with Henry Kissinger, I got the phone call from the Chief Steward (on Air Force One) who said to me 'we'd like to hire you, but we can't guarantee your job. We have an election, and they could change crews, so if you're willing to do it, we'd like to have you'. I said 'yes I would'. So now I get on Air Force One, President Ford sees me, knows me for quite some time. He grabs my jacket and says "Howie, remember I got here first!'.
Franklin remembers President Jimmy Carter and his wife Roslyn as "wonderful, southern people". Franklin says he spent more time with Mrs. Carter toward the end of her husband's presidency. "She was just tremendous," he says. "I traveled extensively with her because of President Carter's dedication to get our people (hostages) released from Iran, Mrs. Carter went out on the campaign trail."
Franklin spent eight years with President Ronald Reagan, and admits to trying to catch the former actor being insincere at first. He says that insincerity never happened, and calls President Reagan the best boss he had on Air Force One. "If I went into his stateroom and offered him something, if I looked in and his water glass was down and I'd get a fresh glass of water, walk in and change it, he would do always something non-verbally or verbally to raise my self-esteem," Franklin says. "Just something, a positive reinforcement that he appreciated what we were doing. That's a boss. For a boss to do that to other people they have to be very secure in themselves, otherwise you can't do that to other people."
President George H. W. Bush is a "great person, very gracious" Franklin says. He remembers the entire Bush family is tight-knit and close. Bush 43 was also a president "who liked to move fast, and do a lot of things", according to Franklin.
President Bill Clinton was the Commander-in-Chief closest to Franklin's age when he took office in 1993. Franklin says that gave the two men a special relationship. "President Clinton was one year younger than me," Franklin said. "He liked me, and I liked him. He was the first President to ever listen to rock and roll. I liked that. I like rock and roll. The other Presidents, they liked music, various kinds of music. Most of them played country music. But this guy is listening to the Four Tops. Whew, I love it! One time I walked in the room and he was playing loud rock and roll. He looked up at me and says "Howie, is this too loud?' I said 'Sir, I've been waiting for a guy like you to come along for a long time!"
Working on the president's plane did have its' perks. Franklin and the crew appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Arsenio Hall Show. He says they got some free rounds of golf, and had the opportunity to take friends and family on tours of Air Force One. Franklin speaks well of the media who traveled with the presidents, including Ted Koppel, Marvin Kalb and Helen Thomas of the Associated Press, who Franklin says liked a bologna sandwich and half-cup of coffee. There were a few people Franklin did not care for, including one presidential press secretary he talks about at 35:10 of the podcast.
Franklin has consulted on productions that involve scenes set on Air Force One. He cites the 1997 film starring Harrison Ford as a good representation of the actual plane, along with the current "House of Cards" series. You can hear Franklin talk about that at 39:50 of the podcast.
Franklin retired from the Air Force in 1994, when he became Director of what is now the Cape Fear Regional Jetport in Oak Island. He published a book in 2015 called "Yes Sir! Mr. President", recounting his time on board Air Force One. He speaks to groups across the country, and takes those opportunities to sell the beauty of his home and the airport.
"You have waterfront property and great weather," Franklin says about the Oak Island/Southport area. "They are still mining diamonds, they're still finding gold, but they're not making any more waterfront property with great weather!"
You can listen to the entire interview with Howie Franklin on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast:
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