115th celebration: Lenz recalls the anti-war protests

While it once kept a low profile during the height of Vietnam War protests, the 115th Fighter Wing is generally viewed today as a unifying force that contributes to the Greater Madison economy.

David Lenz can only chuckle about how times have changed. In 1969, as a college student and a young pilot trainee with the Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing, he would walk to class at the height of the Vietnam War protests at UW–Madison and there were times business students needed the help of the Wisconsin National Guard just to get in the door. At that time, the unit’s presence and work at the local airport was not that well known, and even though it was not involved in Vietnam combat or other missions, it was best to keep it that way.

Today, the 115th literally reaches out to the Madison community by way of the Badger Air Community Council, and the Fighter Wing is generally viewed as a unifying force that contributes to the local economy. The unit is planning a special 70th anniversary celebration this October at Truax Field, where, who knows? Even some of the Vietnam-era war protestors might show up to raise a glass to the 115th.

Stranger things have happened, and some of them occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Back then Lenz, now chairman of the North Central Group, had just joined the 115th Fighter Group. He was sent to the Air Force for basic pilot training in 1970, and returned to Truax Field and the 115th as a fully qualified F-102 interceptor pilot in 1971.

During that period, the 115th was considered part of the reserve forces to be used only if needed. It was not considered part of the “Total Force” concept that the Air National Guard is part of today, and it was not activated or deployed as it has been over the past 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As Lenz underwent pilot training, the anti-war movement was very evident in Madison. He recalls 1969 because that’s the year the Army National Guard was sent to guard entrance doors so that UW–Madison business students could go to class. To Lenz, it was surreal because he was both a student and a Guardsman.

For war protestors, one factor was particularly controversial. “In 1969, I was a business school student at UW and a member of the 115th,” he explains. “Business classes were held at the Commerce Building on campus, and that’s also where Dow Chemical would interview students for employment. Of course, Dow made napalm, which was used extensively in the war.”

The 115th was rather quietly going about its business on the east side of town, but had the unit been directly involved in combat missions, the protestors might have paid a visit. “It probably would have been different,” Lenz acknowledges. “The F-102 [aircraft] could not carry bombs or napalm and did not have a cannon, so it was not used much in Vietnam. Our unit’s presence at Truax was not well known, and we wanted to keep it that way.

“So now, it really is a contrast. Here we are promoting the 115th and making the community aware of all the positive impact it has.”

Lenz would serve in the 115th for 14 years, flying several aircraft including the F-102A, O2-A, OA-37, and the A-10. The F-102, which was loaded with six missiles and rockets, was strictly used as an air-to-air interceptor. “We were assigned the North American Air Defense (NORAD) mission with two fighters on alert in shelters at the end of Runway 36 at the Dane County airport, ready to launch in five minutes to intercept any ‘bogeys,’ presumably Russian bombers threatening the homeland,” he explains. “We would practice the air defense mission over central and northern Wisconsin against B52s, B57s, and T33s. They would act as the aggressors and we would be vectored in to an intercept by GCI, a radar ground intercept facility near Duluth.”

F-35 decision looms

Today, another kind of aircraft occupies the thoughts of unit commanders and community leaders alike. While a final decision isn’t expected until the spring of 2019, the 115th has emerged as the leading contender to house the new F-35 fighter aircraft, and securing it would preserve many of the jobs that now exist at the 115th Fighter Wing. The unit employs more 1,200 civilian and military personnel, and it averages $100 million in annual economic impact to the state.

The selection process has advanced to a third phase, where an EIS, or environmental impact statement, is underway on all of five potential sites. The EIS is a study of all of the potential environmental, socio-economic, and noise impacts related to the change from the current F-16 aircraft to the F-35s. The F-16 planes the unit now has are the oldest in the inventory. “When they are retired, there is no guarantee of a follow-on aircraft,” Lenz explains. “The unit could be deactivated, which would be a huge loss to our community.”

To Lenz, a positive outcome would continue the storied history the 115th has enjoyed in Madison for 70 years. The 115th now serves three missions: it provides homeland defense; it serves as a member of the Department of Defense’s Total Force concept deploying worldwide; and it serves the state’s mission of emergency assistance in many specialties including civil engineering, HAZMAT, medical, bomb disposal, and drug interdiction.

Helping the 115th connect with the community and state is where the Badger Air Community Council comes in handy. Lenz, a founding member of the BACC, describes the council as a business leader support group for the fighter wing’s airmen and families. As such, it tries to make connections between the military and the business community in Madison that did not exist before it was formed. Among the prominent business people involved are: former UW–Madison Director of Athletics and Oscar Mayer executive Pat Richter; former American Family Insurance chief executives Dave Anderson and Jack Salzwedel; Mike Moore, executive vice president of M3 Insurance Solutions; and Colonel Jeff Wiegand, former commander of the 115th.

“There was a loose affiliation, but there was never a serious effort to introduce the 115th Fighter Group and its mission to the community,” Lenz notes, “so the BACC is really the catalyst for that.”



Hotel management

Today, Lenz continues his aviation interest as the senior pilot for North Central Group’s CJ3 aircraft. Lenz, who founded the North Central Group in 1979, got into hotel management later in his career, after swearing he would never do it, and family history played a role. He graduated from UW–Madison with degrees in real estate and finance, and during the first five years of his career he went into the finance side of business and served as a mortgage banker.

Yet something about hotel development and management kept tugging at him. “My family really was instrumental in it,” he acknowledges. “My dad built a motel in Tomah, Wisconsin. It was called the Daybreak Motel and it had 14 rooms. The whole family lived right next to it, and we kind of grew up in the business 24/7. He later sold it and we all said, ‘Gee, that’s a hard business because it was 24/7. When you live on the property, you’re always working.’ So I said, ‘I’m not doing that,’ but later on, I came back to it.”

Years later, Lenz is glad he did because business is good despite various headwinds. The North Central Group was formed for the purpose of developing, owning, and franchising well-known branded hotels, and Lenz is responsible for the company’s long-term growth strategy. The company has hotels in six states, including 15 in Wisconsin, and employs nearly 400 people in Dane County.

The North Central Group recently opened the new Tru by Hilton, and construction cranes are visible where it has broken ground a new Home2 Suites by Hilton off Rimrock Road, right across from the Alliant Energy Center. It will be an all-suites hotel geared to the extended-stay market.

Lenz believes the Alliant Energy Center is underserved in terms of the proximity of guest rooms, even with a Clarion Suites Madison next door and the Sheraton Madison Hotel and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites nearby. “World Dairy Expo, which is held on the Alliant grounds, fills up the entire city and the surrounding areas,” he notes. “It’s one of the larger events, along with the Epic User Group meetings. With those, the demand for hotel space has expanded beyond Madison, so Greater Madison is a growing community with a vibrant marketplace. It’s a good hotel market for us.”

The Madison hotel market keeps growing to keep pace with area business expansion, now represented by the growth plans of Exact Sciences and Promega, and tourism growth, including events such as the Reebok CrossFit Games, which have been secured for several more years. “The hotel industry is enjoying another good year,” says Lenz, who offers a tip of the cap to the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I wouldn’t say it’s a record year, but it’s a good year.”

So is the economy as a whole, as gross domestic product growth is projected to be above 3% for the second quarter. We’ll know more on Friday, when the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis reports preliminary GDP numbers for the second quarter, but 3% growth hasn’t been seen for awhile, and the economies of Wisconsin and Madison benefit from that. Lenz acknowledges the headwinds of tariffs and retaliatory tariffs, the ongoing labor shortage, and the uncertainty surrounding federal immigration policy, which contributes to the difficulty area hotel management has with finding labor.

“We’d like that [immigration] to get fixed,” Lenz states. “Madison is a little bit insulated from all of the ups and downs of the economy because we’ve got so many things going on here with the university and the state government headquartered here, and most of these new startups are in the technology area, which hasn’t seen any of the impact from the hard manufacturing industries that we see in the Milwaukee area and other parts of the state. Hopefully, the steel and aluminum tariffs that are starting to increase costs on the manufacturing side won’t hit us. I don’t know. They could ripple through the economy.”

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