Lemoore's John Bengtson, from small town, to Air Force officer, and serving at the Pentagon and in Ronald Reagan's White House

By Ed Martin, Editor
Lemoore native and Air Force Officer John Bengtson with President Ronald Reagan at The White House during his tenure as a White House social aide.
Lemoore native and Air Force Officer John Bengtson with President Ronald Reagan at The White House during his tenure as a White House social aide.
Photo Contributed

During a compelling career as a United States Air Force officer, Lemoore's John Bengtson has come face to face with presidents, gazed upon royalty, escorted memorable movie stars, assisted famous musicians, and welcomed an occasional visiting politician.

And that wasn’t even his real Air Force job.

The 65-year-old Bengtson,  who spent a productive 27 years in the military, retired in 2005 as a full colonel, after creating for himself a career that has taken him from Lemoore High School (a 1974 grad) to Fresno State, where he studied as an Air Force ROTC scholarship student who early on set his sights on a flying career.

Unfortunately, his less-than-perfect vision wouldn’t allow piloting an Air Force jet.

He does, however, come from impressive stock. His father, Don Bengtson, a longtime law enforcement official who worked in Naval Intelligence and law enforcement, put together an impressive career that at one point sent him across the Pacific for a job, and then back to the U.S. where he arrived at the newly established Lemoore Naval Air Station, accepting a civilian job as an investigator with Naval Intelligence.

The elder Bengtson was also the head of the criminology department at West Hills College – then in Coalinga – and ultimately was elected Kings County Sheriff, serving one term.

Bengtson’s mom, Geneva, was a well-known and beloved school nurse who served in Lemoore schools, including a long stint at Lemoore High School. His mother introduced a young Bengtson to his future wife, Janet, who, it turns out, was also a nurse.

The matchup eventually created three sons, Christopher, who works in technology in Los Angeles, and Aaron and James, both of whom work in the agricultural industry.

Upon his graduation and after earning a bachelor’s degree in math, Bengtson was commissioned as an Air Force lieutenant. “They sent me to the Pentagon for my first job,” he recalled. “That was highly unusual,” he said. “I had colonels stopping me in the hallway asking me what I was doing there? 

“The Air Force at that time was like everyone was in the late 70s, developing their technology, and that involved a lot of computer programming. So, they (Air Force) brought in several hundred people to be programmers.”

A very young John Bengtson, an Air Force Officer and White House social aide, who helped out during state dinners.
A very young John Bengtson, an Air Force Officer and White House social aide, who helped out during state dinners.
Photo Contributed

“I was there for three and one-half years.  While I was there, I was promoted to first lieutenant.” It turns out that while he enjoyed his Pentagon job, he took on yet another responsibility, and this time it involved The White House, which at the time was occupied by President Ronald Reagan.

“My full-time day job was at the Pentagon as a programmer team leader, and I then applied for additional duty as a White House social aide,” remembered Bengtson.  “It was purely voluntary on my part, and I  had to apply and go through a series of interviews, and eventually, I was  accepted into that program.”

He kept his daytime job at the Pentagon, and it was sort of like moonlighting but with a few more perks. Some of those perks involved meeting President Reagan and escorting a whole host of dignitaries, movie stars, and world leaders.

 “My first social event was just about two weeks before John Hinckley shot the president,” recalled Bengtson. “Many of the events still occurred, but without his presence. Mrs. Reagan would, as the senior White House representative, host some of the events before President Reagan was fully recovered.”

And there were major events. “The most common events we went to were state dinners, and for a state dinner, dozens of aides would be required. We would have to show up at 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. in the afternoon, so I would get to leave work a little bit early,” said Bengtson, who recalled that he and other aides wore special uniforms for the White House events.

“All the way through the evening events, we would serve as hosts and hostesses for the president and Mrs. Reagan.”

During one White House event, he met and escorted the late Claudette Colbert. “I didn’t know who she was, and I escorted her and mispronounced her last name.” His fellow aides had to tell him who she was. “She was the sweetest, most gracious lady,” said Bengtson.

While conversations with the President were limited – an aide might speak with him briefly in passing. “He would smile as he walked by. At state dinners, he was focused on the visiting king or president, or whoever the dignitary was,” remembered Bengtson.

Bengtson remembers just about every event he attended as a military aide. “I kept notes for every event. The first one I did was in March 1981, and I had 43 events. The last one was the May of 1982. It was about a year and a half that I was officially an aide.”

John Bengtson (at far right, second row) during a photo session with President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy.
John Bengtson (at far right, second row) during a photo session with President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy.
Photo Contributed

“I can give you a list of all the stars. You know he (Reagan) came out of Hollywood.” Bengtson remembers Frank Sinatra and Clint Eastwood visiting the White House. “I even got to carry the Stradivarius violin for Itzhak Perlman. At that time, he was one of the world’s premier violinists.”

Eventually, the White House gig had to end. The United States Air Force needed him elsewhere. One of his next jobs had him earning a master’s degree in computer science. “I went to an Air Force institution, the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.”

As a U.S. Air Force officer, Bengtson and his family were required to move often.

“We moved a lot, and I was gone a lot,” he recalled. “But the people that I had the privilege to work with were just the best.” He said he was proud to work with such superb people.

“I would do things that I would not have been able to do had I not been in the military – like a White House social aide.”

During at least two periods in his career, he served as a squadron commander. He commanded communications squadrons. “I would be responsible for all the computers, networks, telephones, radios, and in some cases the sensors to protect nuclear weapons sites for a base.”

He also made return visits to the Pentagon. “I was stationed at the Pentagon three different times,” he recalled. “I came back the last time to work for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Following his retirement, he and his family returned to Lemoore in 2005.

“I came back here to be close to family. Both Janet’s family and mine are almost all right here in the Valley. I got a job with the community college district in Fresno. as their director of technology, and I did that for 10 years.”

His second retirement was in 2015.

Currently, the hard-working retiree has been helping out at the Lemoore Middle College High School with its national champion Academic Decathlon team.

He gets to work with his wife occasionally because Janet is an assistant coach with the team. She has been a volunteer for the school’s AD team for seven years, helping coach the team along with Allen Tong, the team’s instructor.

Together they haven’t been doing a bad job, winning locally every year and capturing national championships in 2018 and 2019. “This last year, we were just going into the final competition in early 2020 when it was canceled due to COVID-19.”

In addition to driving the school van to Academic Decathlon events, Bengtson puts his college and Air Force skills to the test. “I teach the science curriculum every year.” He also taught the team’s musical curriculum and basically helped out when he’s needed.

How can the Academic Decathlon team ever lose? With folks like John and Janet Bengtson helping out, sometimes behind the scenes, one can probably count on at least a few more championships.


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