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Big Man: The story of George Price

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany - --                                                   

BIG MAN WALKS INTO A GYM...


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A "Big Man" sign is displayed on the desk of George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, Sept. 16, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

George Price looks like any other 84-year-old man.

The gray hair on his head reflects a man distinguished by nearly a century of life experience.

The wrinkles on his face seem formed from a long, humbled life filled with both success and hardhip.

His eyes convey happiness as well as a caring spirit willing to help anybody in need. 

He starts his day at five in the morning, has breakfast and then heads to work.

Around a quarter after 10 a.m., he goes to the Eifel Powerhaus fitness center.

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, works out inside the Eifel Powerhaus fitness center Sept. 16, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

After his workout, he eats lunch at the Exchange and has the same meal: a tuna sandwich with a drink and a bag of chips before returning to his office.

But, after Oct. 16, 2014, he won't be returning to the fitness center the same way ever again.

On that day, the gymnasium within its walls would bear Price's name.

Those individuals who lobbied for the change already knew the joy and pain conveyed behind the wrinkles on Price's face.

Those 40 or so individuals who attended the ceremony became familiar with, or were already exposed to, his decades of dedication to the Eifel community. 

But what about those who may not know the man for whom the gymnasium is named?

For those who will take to its basketball court, what does it mean to KNOW George Price?

The answer lies in learning more about the lives of those whom he's touched throughout the decades of his military and civilian service as well as from the man himself.

"After 26 beautiful years in the Air Force, every day was a joy - so I decided to stay around the Air Force," Price said.

Pictures of memories spanning decades of his service to the local German community and the U.S. Air Force adorn the four walls of his office at the 52nd Force Support Squadron building.

And Price, sitting at his desk as the 52nd FSS special events coordinator, reaches over to answer a ringing phone.

"Hello, this is George Price. Hey, Big Man."

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, talks to a Spangdahlem Airman inside his office Sept. 16, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

Those accustomed to conversation with Price have no doubt heard him use that catchphrase, one that started when he got involved in the world of basketball.

"I don't know why, but when I was coaching, people used to call me 'Big Man'," said Price   "I call everybody 'Big Man.' I'm 84 years old, and I can't remember all the names from everybody I meet, and I meet a lot of people."

THE AIRMAN

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, walks out of the Eifel Powerhaus fitness center Sept. 16, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

Born and raised in a small town in Pennsylvania, Price joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was when I joined the Air Force," he said. "I was so happy that I did that, because that's when I was allowed to be me. I matured, learned to lead and learned how to be happy."

Price enlisted from the Keystone State, but his active-duty travels would eventually take him all over the world.

"I've been to Vietnam, Korea, France, Germany and England - that was all back before it is what it is right now," he said. "And I never met a bad person."

Price's progression through the ranks later involved the extra responsibility of becoming a first sergeant.  He said his desire to be competitive at anything he did showed during this time.

In fact, he earned the then-36th Tactical Fighter Wing's First Sergeant of the Year in 1972.

And his commitment to the Air Force Core Values carried him on to earn the same title three more consecutive times after that.

"I met the board just like everybody else," he said. "It was a contest for me, and I wanted to win."

Active-duty careers must ultimately end, and Price retired in August 1976 at the rank of senior master sergeant. When he hung up his service dress coat for the last time, his ribbon rack sported the following medals: a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a Meritorious Service Medal, an Air Force Commendation Medal and other numerous campaign awards. 

But that door closing didn't signal his final round of service for Airmen. And while he said that he felt unprepared for civilian life, a certain wingman would help him out.

"The wing commander, Brig. Gen. Frederick Kyler, was a very good friend of mine," he said. "He helped me get a job delivering groceries. It cost 35 cents a sack for the first five sacks. I was making so much money that I was afraid they were going to arrest me!"

His brief stint in supporting customer's meals on his wheels soon gave way to another job: American Youth Activities director at Bitburg Air Base, Germany.

"It was a beautiful job - I worked with kids," Price said.

He said he noticed a few occasions where children arrived at the center without anything to eat. Despite not having a food handler's card, Price served them breakfast, in line with the first sergeant's creed of putting people first.

"I found out then that you never go to jail for doing good things - you go to jail for lying, cheating and stealing," he said.

THE COACH

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, poses for a photo on the basketball court inside the Skelton Memorial Fitness Center Oct. 8, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

Price's transition to working with youths soon led him to coaching, and he soon took over as the athletic director for Bitburg Air Base. Although with no previous experience, his gung-ho spirit and determination inspired him to make his program the best in Europe.

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A photo of George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, and Oda Philips, co-coach of the Bitburg Barons basketball team is part of a display depicting the highlights of Price's career inside the George Price Gymnasium Oct. 20, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

"The basketball team was constantly losing," Price said "I said 'I can do better than that.' I had a real good friend name Oda Phillips. He was a high school teacher and the smartest basketball man I ever knew. But he couldn't lead a goat to get a drink; I could get the goat to drink. So I used his brains to teach, and we took off and won time after time through his knowledge and my ability to scream and shout. That's how we got by."

Price's management philosophy also extended to his players, and he insisted everybody on the team accept their roles on the ball club.

"They had to be a team ball player, otherwise they couldn't play for me," Price said. "Everybody had a job. I always carried 12 guys and only dressed 10. For the other two guys, one would get the bus, and the other would pick up the dirty towels."

Price's record as coach within U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa major command history, like his Air Force career, speaks for itself for those on the bleachers or on the benches:

Eleven continental sport conference championships.

Six USAFE championship titles.

Volunteer coach for the "All-Star" basketball team representing USAFE in the first two U.S. Air Forces Central Command tournaments.

Back-to-back victories in the 1991 and 1992 "Basketball Tip-off Classics."

Four-time USAFE Outstanding Sports Director for the Year.

The first civilian inducted into USAFE's Sports Hall of Fame.

At 521 wins and only 48 losses, Price is the winningest head coach in USAFE history.

There can only be one "winningest."

"It was a dream for me," he said. "I didn't realize it when it was happening. But as I look back on it now and some of the friends I made, some of my ball players - it was just out of this world, and I was fortunate to be a part of it."

THE FAMILY MAN

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, interacts with his daughter Bee Bee Kader, 52nd FSS Eifel Community Center recreation assistant Oct. 21, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

Many may know Price's devotion to both Airmen in uniform and athletes on a court. Yet deeper than all of the victories or trophies, he said his family always comes first.

As a young staff sergeant, Price said he fell in love with a young German woman named Hildi, who worked at the community center snack bar at Bitburg Air Base.

Fifty-six years later, Mr. and Mrs. Price remain inseparable, and Price even said he'd marry her all over again if given the chance. 

"I don't know what I would do without her," Price said. "I couldn't live without her."

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron kisses his wife Hildi, during his dedication ceremony, Oct. 16, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

The newlywed Prices soon doubled their family with the births of their daughter Bee Bee and son Robin.

"I grew up in Bitburg," said Bee Bee Kader, a 52nd FSS Eifel Community Center recreation assistant. "I had a three-generation home with my grandparents, my parents, my brother and myself. It was a great childhood."

Kader said that, just as her father did with his Airmen and players, he always asked for excellence and respect from his family.

"My dad always gave his best - and he expected you to do your best," she said. "If you did your best, it didn't matter. If you failed or succeeded, he was OK with it. But if he realized that you didn't do your best ... then hold on to your horses!"

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A photo of George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, and his son, Robin, is on display inside the George Price Gymnasium depicting the highlights of George Price's career Oct. 20, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

Kader added that growing up in the presence of a champion proved to be both great and challenging.

"My brother and I got a lot of attention - people knew us," she said. "No matter where we went, they always took care of us. Once I became a teenager, it wasn't easy. A lot of the Air Force guys wouldn't date me because my dad was George Price."

While she watched Price shout at his players from the sidelines, Kader said her father always kept their home warm with love.

"My parents both are alive," Kader said. "It's been a very loving, but very respectful home atmosphere in the Price house."

As the 1990s progressed, the then-36th Fighter Wing inactivated and Bitburg Air Base closed.

But those last two developments took a backseat to a closer and more personal tragedy within the Price household as Robin received a diagnosis with cancer.

"I don't remember the exact date I called it quits," Price said. "I had a son who had cancer and got sick, and I realized then I couldn't do all things for all people - that's when I started to slow down."

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A basketball is displayed on the basketball court as George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, walks out of the Skelton Memorial Fitness Center Oct. 8, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

"Finally, just one day ... I didn't do it no more."

Price transitioned from coach to athletic director in charge of the fitness facilities for Spangdahlem Air Base. Over the years, the position brought him near the same courtside action he had been familiar with for so many years, yet he said something still felt missing.

"I had no desire to get involved," Price said. "It's not that Bitburg was any better than Spangdahlem ... I just had no energy to develop it. So I just let it go, and I haven't coached since."

Price traded the fitness center for his current job as special events coordinator in 2002, where he has organized many Independence Day celebrations, Bazaars and anything related to private military organizations.

Sadly, the seemingly-inevitable came for the Price family when Robin died July 3, 2014. 

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron community events coordinator, stands in front of his son's headstone Oct. 17, 2014, in Bettingen, Germany.

"My brother was very sick," Kader said. "Deep down, we all knew it was coming. My parents both aged a lot when Robin died. I don't wish it upon anyone to lose a child before they go. Robin lived at home; he was very close to our parents. He did pretty much everything for them."

THE MENTOR

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, and Arthur Meyers, former senior executive service principal director of military community and family policy for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, share a laugh inside the George Price Gymnasium after a rededication ceremony Oct. 16, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

Price's life has not been without victories or tragedies -- but his enduring impact can still be felt by those whom he deeply touched, despite any initial tough feelings.

"I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Price, when I was a senior airman," said retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Henry Parker, lodging manager of Joint Base San Antonio - Lackland, Texas. "We did not start off with a friendly relationship."

Parker arrived at Spangdahlem Air Base in 1993 and later admitted he was heading down the wrong path then.

"I had no problem deviating from the Air Force path of excellence," Parker said. "But for some reason, George was there to set me on the right path."

Parker said Price's mentorship left an impression on him throughout his years here.  But it was the day Parker left Spangdahlem that Price made the promise of the then-staff sergeant's career.

"When I left here, George drove me to the airport," Parker said. "He said to me 'Big Man, I want you to do me a favor: I want you to make technical sergeant first time.' I said 'George, I don't think I can do that!' It's pretty impossible to do that, especially back in those days. He told me 'If I didn't think you could do that, then I wouldn't have asked.'"

Driven by the coach's faith, Parker studied like he never had before and earned that next stripe on his first try. But he didn't stop there; his efforts eventually earned him being named one of the 12 outstanding Airmen in the Air Force in 2006 as a senior master sergeant, before ultimately reaching the rank of chief master sergeant.

"I am standing here today because of Mr. Price," the retired chief said. "There is no doubt in my mind that I made chief master sergeant because of him."

THE LEGACY

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U.S. Air Force Col. Pete Bilodeau, 52nd Fighter Wing commander, left; George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, center; and Arthur Meyers, former senior executive service principal director of military community and family policy for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, right, pose for a photo in front of the newly dedicated George Price Gymnasium inside the Eifel Powerhaus fitness center, Oct. 16, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

If Parker's example serves as just one way Price influenced a life, imagine how the Big Man might have touched all of Saber Nation?

Indeed - what would the community look like without Price?

Or, more appropriately, how could Saber Nation repay him for all he had done?

U.S. Air Force Maj. Elizabeth Johnston, 52nd FSS commander, recounted such an opportunity when U.S. Air Force Col. David Julazadeh, former commander of the 52nd FW, left the base's soon-to-be-completed fitness center in early 2014.

"As we were driving him back to the office, he started asking what we are going to name the facility," Johnston said. "Then we started talking about the individual rooms, and he knew George's background and knew him very well. He thought what a great match - to match up that court with that name."

The request to designate the name of the gym had to be routed and approved by U.S. Air Force Gen. Frank Gorenc, USAFE-AFAfrica commander.

And with his approval and after decades of service to the women and men of the U.S. Air Force, thousands of high-stakes competitions and victories on the basketball court, and countless number of friends he made in the Eifel community, the George Price Gymnasium became a reality during a re-dedication ceremony at the Eifel Powerhaus Oct. 16, 2014.

"George came up to my office this morning, and we talked about family, life and what we measure as success," said U.S. Air Force Col. Pete Bilodeau, 52nd FW commander. "We both got to the same answer, and that was inspiration, because deep down we are all going to come and go in jobs and eventually retire or move on to a different community. But, eventually, you want to know, did you do it right? Did you leave your fingerprints? Did you inspire others to do better? And did you teach others your position, so they can take over when you go? There is no doubt George represents the core values that we hold to this day. With stewardship and leaving things better than you found it, there is no doubt he kept on finding challenges, kept dealing with them, and moving on and succeeding, especially in the world of sports." 

As Price's squadron commander, Johnston agreed with Bilodeau's comments.

"I think it's an awesome tribute to an awesome Airman -- I could not have thought of a better tribute for him," Johnston said. "To have his name on that court for many years to come is going to be a great and lasting tribute for many years to come - one that he certainly has earned and one that he deserves."

Members of Price's own family said they shared Johnston's sentiments about him being honored.

Kader said she saw basketball history made on similar basketball courts by her father as he led Airmen to victory after victory. She then watched the same community that he sacrificed so much for give back to him with this honor and said she couldn't be happier for him.

"It's well-deserved," Kader said. "It didn't surprise me, because everything my dad does, he gives 110 percent. His job has always been taking care of Airmen, no matter what it took. I'm very proud of him, and, of course, he is George Price."

Parker also attended the ceremony to see his mentor who first dropped that personal challenge to him at the airport many years ago.

"If I think of the Air Force core values, I think of Mr. Price," Parker said. "Through my Air Force career, my success and the way I've done things are because I've marked George's blueprint of taking care of people. To know George is truly to know a legend."

...BIG MAN WALKS OUT A LEGEND

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, dribbles a ball inside the George Price Gymnasium Oct. 20, 2014, at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

Before Price enjoys his tuna sandwich combo meal, he heads to the fitness center once more. Except this time, as he walks in to the Eifel Powerhaus fitness center, he walks under blue letters bearing his name to enter... the George Price Gymnasium.

Price, always remaining the coach, said he has advice for future competitors who will take to the court which bears his name.

"As the gym grows older and I'm gone, it's not always about winning," he said. "It's nice to win, but be kind, thoughtful and caring to each other."

While Price views the inside of the gym, the facility inside somewhat resembles the man for whom it's named.

The blue track on the second floor bears a resemblance to the "Air Force-blued" Airmen whom Price mentored as their first sergeant.

Beneath the track lies a basketball court, clean and pristine much like the perfection Price demanded from his players as their coach.

Surrounding both floors, the light shines through many windows mirroring the many souls Price brightened with his smiles every day as their friend.

But before a future crowd will roar with every basket made or another team walks off in silence with renewed drive to earn redemption, Price, standing in the middle of this revered ground, reflects on the his many victories and losses both on and off the court.

"I'm grateful and appreciative - more so for my family and my son who went away," Price said. "I'm more proud for them, because I've had enough laurels in my life; I don't need no more. My tank is full. I did everything. I won everything, and I've been blessed beyond words that people think kindly of me."

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George Price, 52nd Force Support Squadron special events coordinator, smiles inside his house Oct. 2, 2014, Bettingen, Germany.


(U.S. Air Force Photos by Senior Airman Rusty Frank and Video by Staff Sgt. Robbie Arp/Released)