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Ft. MacArthur’s Diplomat in Uniform Made Allies of the Air Force, San Pedro

Times Staff Writer

Col. William E. Sawyer is busy.

It is two days before the Air Force’s traveling theatrical troupe is to arrive in San Pedro to put on their “Tops in Blue” show at the Warner Grand Theater. The commander of Ft. MacArthur is scurrying about, trying to see to it that civilian dignitaries and higher-ups from the Air Force Space Division in El Segundo are given proper seats in what he expects to be a standing-room-only house.

That the troupe is coming to San Pedro at all is Sawyer’s doing. “I thought it would be good for the community to see super Air Force talent,” he said.

And there’s a little perk in it for San Pedro too: some exposure for the Warner Grand, an old-time movie palace that has been renovated as part of a general resurgence of downtown. Sawyer hoped the troupe, which performed last week, would help “tell people that there’s a theater down here in San Pedro that they’re not aware of.”

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Classic Maneuver

It is a classic Sawyer maneuver--a move that simultaneously helps the Air Force and the citizens of San Pedro, thereby strengthening the bond between the two.

Sawyer is a perfect public relations man for the military.

He is clearly proud of the Air Force and has spent his 29-month tour of duty in San Pedro trying to persuade its residents to feel the same way. He is widely credited with improving San Pedro’s attitude toward the Air Force--a task some once thought impossible.

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On Wednesday, Sawyer’s tour as commander of historic, 100-year-old Ft. MacArthur came to a close. At a formal ceremony near the two cannons on the fort’s parade ground, Sawyer passed an Air Force flag to his successor, Col. Glenn M. Perry II, thus symbolically--and literally--transferring his command.

His leaving will not go unnoticed.

“I can tell you right up front that Col. Bill Sawyer is probably one of the most community-minded people you’d ever want to meet,” said Jerry Gaines, who chaired the White Point Citizens Advisory Committee, on which Sawyer served.

Said Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores: “He has proven to be as devoted a San Pedran as if he were a native.”

When Sawyer arrived in San Pedro in January, 1986, the residents were angry. The Air Force had been trying to reclaim White Point Park for additional housing, but eventually settled for another site--Bogdanovich Park--and a small portion of White Point.

Even so, residents were incensed that their open land, including some prized soccer fields in a community where soccer is taken very seriously, was being taken away--even though the military did own it. And the feeling around the fort was not much better.

Air Force people “had a bad attitude because they felt the town had a bad attitude,” Sawyer said.

The first thing the commander did was paint a church.

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The church--actually a former church building on land that is now managed by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks--was marred by graffiti. Residents wanted it painted. When Sawyer heard about it, he collared his wife, his daughter and a couple of generals from the fort. They went to work.

“The first time I saw him was at that little church on 25th and Grand,” recalled Flores aide Mario Juravich. “He and his staff with some other community people scraped and painted and even water-blasted. And he was out there, himself and his family doing the work. I think that was the first breaking of the ice, the good will that extended from his side.”

Since then, Sawyer has served on two important community committees: the White Point committee, which made recommendations for replacing the soccer fields lost at Bogdanovich Park and for using

the rest of White Point Park; and the Angels Gate Citizens Advisory Committee, which suggested ways to develop Angels Gate Park. Sawyer also serves on the board of the Cabrillo Marine Museum, and has encouraged Ft. MacArthur residents to become similarly involved.

His proudest accomplishment, he says, is that members of the Air Force and their spouses now serve on boards at the local YMCA and the Chamber of Commerce, and that they participate in planning community festivities, such as the recent centennial parade and the San Pedro Street Faire.

As commander of the fort, Sawyer was the military equivalent of a village mayor.

The commander is responsible for the general quality of life of the 400 families who live off Pacific Avenue, behind Ft. MacArthur’s gates. He is a security director, a maintenance superintendent and a planning director rolled into one.

Community relations officer is not in the job description. It is, however, in Sawyer’s nature.

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“I’m very proud of this uniform, and I would like for people to want Air Force families in the community,” he said. “I would like for them to think we’re good citizens, that we contribute to the community, that we add to the community.”

A native of Tulsa, Okla., Sawyer has spent 27 years in the Air Force, mostly as a personnel officer. At 50, he says his next assignment, in the personnel division at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, will probably be his last. Although he knew “little to nothing” about San Pedro when he arrived, he is now considering returning there to retire.

Sawyer said he likes the community’s ethnicity, its small-town feeling and its climate. He called it “middle America on the West Coast.”

And as he looked forward to Wednesday’s change-of-command, the man in charge of Ft. MacArthur said he would not be surprised if he had trouble relinquishing the flag.


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