After retiring, Air Force veteran spent years teaching, encouraging and inspiring students to learn. Auditor turned his love of flying into teaching moments for at-risk students

By Amy Martinez Starke, The Oregonian

Bob Strickland never got to fly a military plane. Born in 1935 in Jim Crow Arkansas, Bob was not in a position to imagine such a lofty goal.

But he wanted to work near planes. So he enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school and became a desk jockey –an auditor and accountant –instead.

Born: Nov. 29, 1935, Camden, Ark.

Died: Sept. 25, 2008, Portland

Survivors: Wife, Earnestine; daughters, Beverli Strickland, Sandra Clark and Sheila Hancock; sons, Robert Jr. and Reginald; sister, E. Gail Woolfolk; brothers, Warren Lee Jr. and John; 10 grandchildren

Services: Have been held. Pearson Air Museum in Vancouver; and in Pflugerville, Texas

Remembrances: Airway Science for Kids, P.O. Box 4142, Portland, OR 97208; www.airwayscience.org

And that work turned out to suit his methodical, rules-based, by-the-book personality very well.

As a hobby, Bob built and flew remote-controlled planes. Working with one of his children building an aircraft, he reflected on just how much math and science learning took place through that hobby.

An idea took form in his mind: After 22 years in the Air Force and 13 years as an auditor with the state of Texas, and still in his 50s, he decided that spending the rest of his life golfing and fishing was not for him.

Bob assigned himself a mission: Fill in the gaps in learning for kids who needed help.

He sketched out his plan. It was a simple vision, really: teach at-risk boys and girls to fly airplanes via computer simulator, thus tricking them into learning math and science, reading and study skills. It would be a two-year program, meeting after school.

He had a master’s degree, and his own children were grown and graduated from college when he split up with his wife in Texas and moved to Portland to be near old friends, settling in unincorporated Northwest Portland in 1991.

His brainchild became a foundation in 1992, named after his father, who had been a Baptist preacher.

Bob first plugged into the Boys and Girls Club in Northeast Portland for classroom space, with donated computers. He recruited volunteers and sponsors. To find kids, he got referrals from the community, churches and schools.

Fundraising was an immediate and constant struggle. He twisted lots of arms.

That was just the start. The next hurdle was getting the kids to show up. Then to settle down, and pay attention. None of them could read an analog watch. Many had never seen a map. Some could hardly read.

There were rules: Finish your homework before you get to the center. If it wasn’t done, he’d help with that, too.

But if the kid could get through learning the basics of flight and master the flight simulator program, a big carrot was at the end of the first year: He or she would get a flight in a private plane.

During the second year of the program, the kids built a radio-controlled airplane from scratch and learned to fly it, under Bob’s supervision.

By the time they finished, they could read an altimeter and airspeed indicator and determine latitude and longitude. They knew about aerodynamics and Bernoulli’s Law. They could read a map, aviation charts, chart flight paths and figure wind correction angles. They had built an airplane from scratch.

Some didn’t last. Some dropped out or moved away. Some needed a firm hand and a reminder of the two-year commitment they had agreed to.

Or perhaps they needed him to repeat one of his frequently used mottoes:

“If it is to be, it is up to me.”

“Miss no opportunity to learn, pass no opportunity to teach.”

“Short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.”

Most graduated.

Bob often remarked that he was making a difference not only in that child’s life but also in that child’s whole family. He reflected that this kid was wearing a suit, that one had gone to college, that one had gone into pilot training, that one was more engaged in school. One girl got an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The longer the program went on, the more results he saw. But he also saw more to do.

He wanted more centers. He wanted an evening program for adults and older kids to work together. He even envisioned a nationwide program. His strategic plan spanned years.

Bob lived and breathed this program for the last 17 years of his life, which ended Sept. 25, 2008, at age 72 of cancer. He was the program’s only executive director, its recruiter, its main instructor, and its primary fundraiser. He received only a small stipend.

Hundreds of kids have been through the program, which now has locations in Portland, Hillsboro and Vancouver, and with the death of its leader and its main energy, is in even greater need of volunteers.

During the time he had the foundation, Bob found the time to learn to fly himself. He got a private pilot’s license.

He recruited many of his fellow pilots to take the kids up on their first flights –kids so excited they couldn’t sleep the night before. They wanted to be the one who got to ride in the front seat with the pilot and to whom a pilot might say: “You’re at the helm now, kid.”

In 2006 the Tiger Woods Foundation awarded Bob with a plaque in recognition for his vision and service to the community. Tiger represents how a person can overcome adversity and life’s challenges to become successful,  ASK’s mission is to help young people find and achieve their own successful lives.