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Col. Hawkins (ret.) gives up gavel as curtain falls on second career

In his study in the finished basement of his home in Sugar Hollow, Grady Hawkins peers into a desktop screen at an update on Covid-19 in Henderson County.

“Steve sends out a SitRep,” he explains, referring to County Manager Steve Wyatt’s situation reports on the spread of the virus, hospital capacity and other metrics.

True to his sense of duty, Hawkins is still working as chairman of the Board of Commissioners, even though he has nothing official left to do except to be honored during a ceremonial handoff of the gavel on Monday. After four terms on the board, he’ll step aside into retirement 3.0, this one more likely to stick than two previous retirements, one from the Air Force and another from a short stint as a commercial pilot and charter pilot.
“Should have been an easy windup run,” he says when he spins a quarter turn in his office chair to greet me and share highlights about his life — from high school football to his time at Carolina, his Air Force career and his service on the Board of Commissioners. “It’s been one of the hardest years, county commission-wise, in 16 years. We’ve been blessed with unusual events. Losing Charlie, losing Deputy Hendrix, the Covid stuff, trying to get our budget under control, with the unknown sales tax.”
In the past eight months, Hawkins has led the five-member Board of Commissioners through challenges that have ranged from the extraordinary to the unprecedented: the death of longtime Commissioner Charlie Messer from cancer, the fatal shooting of sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Hendrix in the line of duty, and the pandemic and its collateral damage to the county’s retail, dining and hospitality economy. Even with those setbacks, though, Hawkins leaves the board after two separate eight-year runs satisfied that the county is on solid footing.
“I think we leave things in better shape than when we started a number of years ago,” he says.

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If people remark that Hawkins is not a native of the county he serves, he reminds them that Henderson County was a part of Buncombe until it was carved off in 1838. Born Nov. 28, 1942, Hawkins grew up in the Enka-Candler community. His father worked as a chemist at the American Enka Co., a plant that was once the nation’s leading manufacturer of rayon, while his mother stayed home to raise Grady and his brother and sister.
At age 13, Grady got a job cleaning rooms at a hotel for a dollar a day, then made a switch that would portend his adult life. He hired on as a mechanic in a repair shop. He loved cars and motors and had an aptitude for mechanics. “And I like going fast,” he says.
A halfback on the Enka Jets football squad, he also ran track. Although he fell short of making the team when he tried out to play football for Wake Forest, UNC offered him a track scholarship. He could run the 100-yard dash in 11.4 seconds, he recalls, a respectable if not All America time.
He joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at Carolina as the Vietnam War was escalating. Many of his peers had joined the ROTC because serving in the military unit exempted them from the draft. Completing ROTC entitled the cadet to join the Air Force as a 2nd lieutenant.
“You could turn it down” and avoid service, Hawkins says. “So what the Air Force did, they said, ‘OK, when you get to be a junior we’re going to put you in the Air National Guard Reserve,’ so I entered into Air National Guard Reserve as an Airman Basic. And then, what they were doing, if you decided you didn’t want your commission when you graduated, they put you in through the Reserves.”
Dodging the draft was never a consideration for Hawkins. He wanted to fly.
He took his 2nd lieutenant’s commission and entered flight school at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif., starting out in navigation training.
“Navigation in the ‘60s was a challenge over water — no landmarks,” he says. He had to memorize 51 stars to navigate by. In the night sky, navigators used a “circular slide rule and a sextant,” computed their height above the horizon and triangulated from three stars to chart the plane’s position.

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After qualifying as a navigator-bombardier, Hawkins shipped out to Vietnam to join a 13th Air Force squad flying a B-57 bomber. It was 1967, a few months before the Tet offensive.
GradySquadLt. Grady Hawkins, standing, second from right, poses with a B-57 bomber.“Normally we would work the target where you’d dive in and we would make six or eight passes on a single target ‘in country,’” he said. “At night, which is our primary mission, we did road interdiction, in Cambodia and North Vietnam.”
Two controllers — call signs Moonbeam and Blind Bat — gave flyers the location of targets on the ground. “Blind Bat would say you had movers two clicks from Delta 20,” he says.
Hawkins and the crew usually hunted alone, on missions that aimed to disrupt the flow of arms, troops and supplies from North Vietnam. Unlike World War II, which had pivotal strategic turning points like the Battle of the Bulge, Vietnam was one long guerilla slog, same as patriots fighting the British in the American Revolution, Hawkins says.
“By the time I left I had destroyed 77 trucks and they just listed them as trucks, they didn’t list them as they had any drivers in ’em,” he says. “I destroyed 12 anti-aircraft batteries. One night we got 200 secondary explosions out of a target we hit. It had a lot of ordnance.”
He recounts these kills with neither pride nor regret, stating the facts on the ground, rendered by his plane’s fierce fighting ability from the air. When I ask whether he had been shot at, his response reflects the experience that 4,000 flying hours earned him.
“There was a lot of ways to avoid gettin’ your butt shot off,” he says. “First of all, you had to remember to turn your lights off on your plane, something very simple.” When the ground controller showered a target with flares, that introduced “Rule no. 2: Don’t go below the flares.” Although the bombers had flares of their own, pilots had to be in judicious in their use. “Punch off one, punch off a second one, then get the hell out of the way, because the (anti-aircraft) gunner would be waiting for you before the third one could go off. You could figure on that. … The other rule, you didn’t strafe at night, because your wings light up and that ‘nine-level’ gunner (on the ground) will get you.”
Because the North Vietnamese eavesdropped on their radio chatter, airmen learned to disguise directions. Instead of announcing compass directions, he’d report that “I’m going to roll in from Georgia and pull off to Oklahoma,” signaling a south approach and a western escape. “You’d see ’em shoot, and they’d be shooting somewhere different because they couldn’t see us.”
The squadron was restricted from going below 2,000 feet because an AK-47 shot from the ground could reach the bombers. One day, though, an Army unit had gotten pinned down in a rice paddy by withering fire from a machine gun nest concealed by a tree line. The ground forces called for air support. The bomber flew below 2,000 feet and the crew spotted the muzzle-fire of the machine guns. Hawkins punched off four cans of napalm and vaporized the machine gun nest. The plane paid a price. Before it was obliterated, the machine gun nest had knocked out the bomber’s wing-mounted air conditioning intake, “which p---ed us off. So we came back around and strafed the tree line with eight 50-caliber machine guns,” Hawkins says. “There wasn’t even a tree left standing.”
When the crew landed the crippled ship back at the base, they were greeted with less than a hero’s welcome.
“The wing commander was about to court martial us for dropping ordnance below 2,000 feet and getting the airplane shot up. The only thing that saved us was the (Army) company commander called up there and said, ‘This guy saved our butts. We were pinned down.’”
He shakes his head at the memories.
“Strange things,” he says. “You could make a movie out of some of them.”
After 310 missions and 770 hours of air combat straddling 1967 and 1968, Hawkins came home.
“In Vietnam, a lot of people wanted to go back over there but I never had any desire to go back over there or go back to Korea either on,” he says.
Invoking a phrase that became emblematic of the sixties and seventies, Hawkins looks back on the Vietnam War — his war — and describes what he sees as the gap between American aspirations and South Vietnam’s culture.
“To be successful in a guerrilla type of war you have to win the minds and the hearts of the people and they have to want to not be overcome by communism,” he says. “They’re not connected to the idea of democracy. They’ve lived under that system of a ruler and that’s all they knew. It’s just a totally different culture.”

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Hawkins, an instructor, prepares to board a P-38 Talon, an Air Force jet used to trained pilot, at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.Hawkins, an instructor, prepares to board a P-38 Talon, an Air Force jet used to trained pilot, at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.Back home, he taught recruits how to be pilots, at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.
“We taught ’em how to fly,” he says before quickly making a correction. “We taught ’em how to land.”
“You could take an airplane off,” he tells me. “It takes another year or two to train ’em to land.”
As he steadily moved up in rank, Hawkins commanded two squadrons at Shepherd Air Force Base in Texas, then served in South Korea. At Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, he taught pilots how to become flight instructors themselves. His last posting was back where he started, at Mather Air Force in Sacramento, as deputy commander of operations in charge of 13 training squadrons and later base commander. By the time he was discharged as a colonel in September 1989, he had been decorated with the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying cross, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Medal with 19 Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Vietnam Gallantry Cross.

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 After those 25 years of active duty service, Hawkins was ready to come home to North Carolina. He tried flying passenger jets for American Eagle, the short hop service of American Airlines.
“I wasn’t cut out to be a commercial pilot,” he says. Based in Raleigh, he piloted a puddle-jumping twin-engine turboprop. “I take off from Raleigh-Durham to Greensboro. Take off, you get the airplane tuned up, gear up, flaps up, engine synced — now it’s time to land. Takes you 35 minutes to get there and then I’ve got to set there in Greensboro for three hours. And it’s all straight and level.”
Self-grounded, he embarked on a second career in politics.
Candler Willis, who had served one term as a county commissioner, was an old friend he had grown up with in Enka. He also got to know state Rep. Larry Justus, a fellow Air Force veteran known as “Mr. Republican.” And he had a bone to pick with elected commissioners about the property tax rate and property values.
“Being a mathematician, the tax rate’s only one part of this equation,” he said. “I got the idea that I might want to help ’em out a little.” In 1996, he was elected with no opponent in either the primary or general election.
He defeated Chuck McGrady in 2000, then lost to him in a rematch four years later. When he appeared before commissioners recently, McGrady, who went on to serve five terms in the state House, recalled how he and Hawkins went from opponents to allies in advancing Henderson County’s interests.
In 2012, Hawkins reemerged, vanquishing McGrady’s appointed successor, Bill O’Connor, in a May primary.
Among significant achievements he cites during his county tenure are instituting the county manager form of government, codifying county ordinances, clarifying the corporate structure of Pardee Hospital, adopting property readdressing (replacing rural routes and boxes with unique street addresses) and starting the process toward countywide zoning.
During his seervice, the Board of Commissioners replaced obsolete elementary schools with new ones (Hillandale, Mills River, Fletcher and Edneyville), added Glenn Marlow, Sugarloaf and Clear Creek elementary schools and the Innovative High School, completed a major renovation of Hendersonville Middle School and, after years of conflict, authorized the renovation-construction of Hendersonville High School. Commissioners also built a new jail and then a sheriff’s office headquarters on North Grove Street, the Human Services building, the emergency services headquarters. Since 2017, the board has ordered up and adopted a countywide greenway plan and, just last month, it authorized a $7 million bridge loan to help Conserving Carolina purchase the Hendersonville-to-Brevard rail line for the Ecusta Trail.

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Hawkins has been married to his second wife, Doris, for 22 years. The sister of Bill Moore, the late mayor of Fletcher, Doris is as active in party politics as her husband, serving as a leader of the Republican Women’s Club locally and at the state level. Between them, he and Doris have six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, including a set of fraternal twins.
In his garage, Hawkins gives me a brief tour of his classic cars. Both are 1947 Dodge D-24s, one a coupe, the other a sedan with a six-cylinder flathead motor that his grandfather bought new.
Describing his work on the classic automobiles, Grady Hawkins sounds like a man satisfied to leave budget workshops, property taxes, land-use fights and even air travel in the rear-view mirror.
“I’m going to be at a lot more car shows this year,” he says. “We’re going to do a little traveling but not outside the continental United States. I’ve been there.”