Kimbrough Bassett – ATO Superstar

Memories of an air training officer who shaped the Class of '59 

A few years have passed since 87-year-old Kimbrough Bassett was a young air training officer (ATO) welcoming the first class of Air Force Academy cadets to Lowry Air Force Base in 1955.

Bassett graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and was commissioned into the Air Force in 1953. He soon learned of an opportunity to serve at the new academy.

“From my experience at Annapolis, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of what the job entailed, and it was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I volunteered,” Bassett said.

Bassett and his fellow ATOs felt that they were part of something special.

“There was a sort of a feeling in the back of our minds,” Bassett said. “We didn’t talk about it much, but West Point and Annapolis had such a high standing in the public view and we wanted the Air Force Academy to get to that same level. The other academies were 100 years old and had produced graduates who were very distinguished leaders and the issue was, could we get there starting from scratch?”

'Get it done'

Several weeks before the first batch of cadets arrived, Bassett was called to the deputy commandant’s office and tasked with an important mission.

“Kimbrough, Annapolis has Reef Points, West Point has Bugle Notes. I want the same kind of handbook to give to our cadets, and I want to have it ready when they arrive,” said Col. Benjamin B. Cassidy.

USAFA in 1959

“He pointed his finger at me and he said, ‘Get it done.’ There’s only one thing you can say to a full colonel if you are a lieutenant in that situation, so that’s what I did," Bassett said.  

When the cadets stepped off the bus, they each received a copy of the first edition of Contrails, courtesy of 1st Lt. Bassett.

“I was very optimistic about the future of the Air Force after meeting and getting to know these first cadets,” Bassett said. “There were only 300 cadets in the first class. I knew the ones who were on the soccer squad among the best and then the ones who were in my squadron and my flight. The impression I had was that they were more serious as a group and probably more mature than the plebes I recalled from my time at the Naval Academy.” 

There was this girl …

Serving as an officer at the all-male academy limited Bassett’s interactions with women, but that soon changed. 

“One day I was at my desk working and I looked up and there was this beautiful young woman talking to the woman up in front, exchanging some papers with her and so forth,” Bassett recalled. “I leaned over to the guy at the desk next to me and I said, ‘Hey, check this out.’ He looked up and he said, ‘Forget it. Her father’s a general and she’s dating a captain.’ So I kind of wrote that off. But fate intervened.”

silveria + morgan

One afternoon, Bassett went down to the dingy lunchroom in the basement for a break and there was the secretary, Carole Gilchrist.

“She was down there locked in combat with one of the vending machines trying to get what she had paid for,” Bassett said. “I went over and offered to help and between the two of us we overcame the vending machine. In the process, I asked her if she would like to see a movie some evening and she said she thought that would be very nice. And so we set a date, and one year and one day later we were married—for 56 years.”

Through the years

When his wife became ill, Bassett left the Air Force in 1958 and launched into a private career that included managing warehouse operations for Duncan Hines, running a computer center and serving as the chief financial and administrative officer for an investment company in Newport Beach, California.

Through the years, the Bassetts enjoyed playing tennis and were active in a local club. “ We were both quite active in that club, playing both men’s singles and doubles, women’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles,” Bassett said.

When his wife passed away in 2013, Basset wanted to honor her memory. Moved by her life-long love of tennis, he worked with the USAFA Endowment to create the USAFA Women’s Tennis Award Endowment. The fund supports the team’s annual Graduation Awards Ceremony and the presentation of The Carole Gilchrist Bassett Award for Outstanding Women’s Tennis. 

The first recipient of the award was Cadet 2nd Class Tamara Fumagalli '20.

“The award is important because it represents some of the all-time great players and leaders,” said Women’s Tennis Coach Kim Gidley. “Being a great team leader and team player is the key. We would expect her to continue to grow and excel as a leader and a tennis player on and off the court, and she has already set herself in the record books.”

Time to reflect

Bassett and the Academy’s first ATOs sensed the importance of their jobs, but may have never realized the far-reaching impact they had on the cadets.

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Harold Todd '59, the first Air Force Academy graduate to achieve the rank of general, held his former ATOs in high regard.

“These guys, as far as I’m concerned, are superstars,” Todd said in 2012, reminiscing about his years as a cadet. “With the perspective of age and experience, I realized everything we had accomplished was because of them. We made them, the air training officers, honorary members of the Class of ’59.”

Basset received the general’s praise with humility. “That’s a high compliment coming from a general you helped train,” he said. “I will say that I consider it a great privilege to have served with the other ATOs, who really were an incredible group, as well as to be a part of the Air Force Academy as the first traditions were established, traditions that continue today."

Bassett lives today in a quiet retirement community in Riverside, California. He has never thought of himself as a superstar, but he is happy to know that his time at the Academy made a difference.


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