By William K. Alcorn
Preparing special, unplanned meals, making sure the restroom doors work properly and practically tucking in several United States presidents and their entourage, retired Air Force Master Sgt. John L. Haigh Sr. lived his boyhood dream of traveling the world and serving his country as a steward on Air Force One.
Air Force One is the official air-traffic control call sign for a USAF aircraft carrying the president of the United States. It serves as the president’s office, and carries staff, distinguished heads of state and guests and the White House press corps.
Haigh, who grew up in a small coal-mining community in southwestern Pennsylvania, began living his dream when he enlisted in the Air Force on Sept. 28, 1960, shortly after graduating from high school.
Before he retired in October 1992, he had worked his way up the ranks during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and became chief steward during President Ronald Reagan’s second term. He remained in that position for more than three years of the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
Haigh has written a book about his experiences as a steward aboard Air Force One, titled “Air Force One: An Honor, Privilege, and Pleasure to Serve.”
During a book-signing event Thursday at Girard Free Library, Haigh entertained and informed more than 50 people about some of his experiences – humorous, sad and frightening – that are in his book.
Over the years, he learned many of the likes and dislikes of the presidents and their families.
For instance, President Bush did not like broccoli, and renamed french fries “freedom fries” because of some difficulty with France at the time. President Bush liked “Tex-Mex,” Haigh said.
First Lady Nancy Reagan once ordered a Cobb salad, but despite having attended culinary schools, Haigh did not know how to make it.
Living up to his motto of making his distinguished guests secure, safe and comfortable, and fulfilling their every wish, Haigh called the restaurant where Mrs. Reagan often ate Cobb salad and asked the chef for the recipe and what it looked like. He said he was able to make Mrs. Reagan happy.
President Reagan particularly liked meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, Haigh said.
“To be a steward you have to be able to smile, no matter how long you have been on your feet, and never let them see you sweat. Just smile and be pleasant,” he said.
Flying Air Force One missions were not always without risk.
Haigh said he was in Cartagena, Colombia, when there was a bounty on President Bush’s head.
“I looked down from my hotel window and saw we were surrounded by Army tanks. I wrote out my will. When I got back from that trip, I kissed the ground,” he said.
Haigh, who got to know the presidents he served well – President Bush the best – described the men.
President Bush was a “hands-on man”; President Reagan was “a gentleman at all times,” and President Carter “was an intellectual. He was not as people-oriented,” Haigh said.
Rose Ann Lubert, director of the Girard library, who invited Haigh to Thursday’s program after reading his book, said she “loved his presentation.”
“In these contentious times,” she said, “it’s so nice to hear nice things about our presidents from someone who knew them personally.”