From high school dropout to Air Force major to student mentor
Aug 11, 2012, 12:19 p.m.
By Maria Sonnenberg
Consider the life of Major Joe Oblack. In 1984, looking for adventure, Oblack and his wife enrolled in a sailing school in England prior to buying a British boat. The Oblacks then proceeded to sail the Mediterranean, spending four summers there before embarking across the Atlantic to the West Indies, South America, Bermuda, the east coast of the United States and Nova Scotia. When the weather turned cool, the couple returned home to Dillon, Colorado to catch up with their skiing.
Not bad for a high school dropout.
It wasn’t always that easy. Oblack’s story officially began in 1934 at New York General Hospital.
“My parents were poor but hard-working,” Oblack said of his Italian-born father and his Italian-American mother. “There were a few books in the house, one radio and no phone, but there was plenty of love for the family and for America.”
At the ripe age of 15, Oblack decided to part ways with school for good. Not surprisingly, the good jobs didn’t materialize.
“I caddied, washed pots and pans in a bakery and did whatever odd jobs I could find, but I loved my new freedom,” he said. “I had a few bucks in my pocket, enough to buy cigarettes and beer. My only problem was staying away from the truant officer.”
When the menial jobs became boring, 17-year-old Oblack sought an adventure in a manner common to many a young man: he enlisted in the military. The United States Air Force offered him B-29 gunnery school training and assigned him to a flight crew.
“I loved being part of the crew, but I really wanted to be a pilot,” he said.
Oblack’s timing was impeccable. Just two years later, the Air Force was campaigning for pilots. Oblack flunked the pilot test.
“It was just a test of math, algebra and other high school subjects,” he explained. “The one semester of high school I had wasn’t enough for me to become an officer. I was devastated.”
He decided to hit the books to conquer that test.
“Just when I thought I was ready, the Air Force changed the rules,” he said. “They now required a college degree to enter pilot training.”
Determine to achieve his goal, Oblack eventually obtained his high school equivalency diploma, subsequently enrolling in college courses. It was a long slog of night classes squeezed in during different Air Force assignments, but by 1962 at age 27, Oblack had his bachelor’s degree. In the meantime, the Air Force again changed requirements.
“They set the maximum age for starting pilot training at 26 ½,” he said.
He couldn’t fly, but he was accepted into officer training school, commissioned a second lieutenant in 1963. They payoff was a long career as a supply and logistic officer before retiring as a major in 1976 and accepting employment with Lockheed in Iran and Northrop in Saudi Arabia.
When sailing became a new passion, Oblack and his wife, Ruth, went to school and bought the boat. Passion eventually burns out for one reason or another, so the Oblacks sold their big boat to become snowbirds flitting around Florida before settling in Brevard in 2003, where Joe remains active with the Cape Canaveral Chapter of the Military Officers’ Association of America.
The passion for sailing isn’t all over, either, for the Oblacks keep a small racing sailboat.
“Living here is the closest thing to living in paradise,” he said.
Oblack’s vicissitudes as a high school dropout has prompted him to mentor high school students at risk of quitting school. The United States Air Force Recruiting Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base recently filmed a video of Oblack to persuade students to earn their high school degree before joining the military.
“At this time, it is very difficult for a dropout even with a GED to enlist in the Air Force,” Oblack said.