Civilian marks 40 years of service at USAFA

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  • By Amy Gillentine
  • Research Office
In 1974, Academy classes were all male; there weren't any computers, cell phones and free weekends were few and far between. It was the year then-President Gerald Ford spoke at graduation. And it was the year Renny Strackany started work as a machinist in the training devices department.

Forty years later, women are not only taking classes at USAFA, but the Academy has its first female superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson and Cadets now carry laptops to all their classes. But one thing hasn't changed: Strackany is still a machinist at the Academy. He's the man with all the institutional knowledge in the Space Systems Research Center.

Nearly every conversation is interrupted: "Renny, where's the right glue for this project?," "Where is the set of wrenches?" or "Can you help with this?"

He answers, telling them where to find what they need, stopping to assist cadets with a project. One colleague says, "He's the man who knows everything. We couldn't operate without him."

And it's clear that Strackany loves his job.

"I could retire," he says. "I like coming to work every day. I like working with the cadets; I like what I do. It's that simple."

He's the first one in the lab every morning, says Lt. Col. David Barnhart, director of the research center.

"He gets in around 6:30 a.m. He opens all the doors, greets me with an enthusiastic 'Good morning, colonel," as I arrive," he said. "He is the kind of guy that does what needs to be done before being asked. He just knows what to do next."

Through the years, Strackany has assisted cadets with their final projects, helping create prototypes from their designs.

"I had the honor to mentor (superintendent) Michelle Johnson, when she was a flight commander," he recalls. "She was the first female Cadet Wing commander. Every class had to take Engineering 410 to graduate. That class had to go out to the community and find out what was needed -- things like developing a handicapped ramp in churches, building elevators for the disabled. Things like that. We even built an electric wheelchair that a girl in Woodland Park could operate with her elbow. You should have seen her screaming through the building. She was so tickled."

While he can't remember Gen. Johnson's project, he remembers the Superintendent as a cadet.

"She stood out," he said. "She worked hard."

Through the years, Strackany has become a part of the USAFA experience for the cadets. He met his wife here, and they got married in the chapel. He worked for three decades in training devices, and then moved to the Space Systems Research laboratory when they needed a machinist to work with cadets.

And he stays, he says, because the Academy has become his family.

"I've worked in astronautics since 2003. I enjoy the people; I love to work with cadets. They're the smartest kids in the whole world. But it does make you feel old - meeting cadets who were here at 18, 19, 20 years-old - and know they're three-star generals now."

Strackany's current role is to help cadets machine the parts for the FalconSAT program satellites. He helps with every version of the satellite - from flight models to the ready-for-launch product. He feels a sense of pride when he sees one of his satellites launched and the role he plays in mentoring cadets.

"We build the parts for the satellites," he said. "I have about eight kids in the group that I mentor. Some never had any experience on big machinery, but they take to it really well. It's always worked out well."

It works out because of Strackany's skills, Barnhart says.

"Renny is a problem-solver extraordinaire," he said. "As a seasoned mechanical lab tech, he can solve the toughest problems that faculty and cadets throw his way. His network of friends is extensive - so if we lack a special tool he needs; he knows where to get it."

And while Strackany's job is going smoothly, he and his wife, Marsha, had to relocate after the Black Forest fire devastated their property. The couple lost their home and four antique tractors he collected during the years.

"But we've moved onto a beautiful new property," he said. "We have 11 acres, and I've bought a new antique tractor. It worked out fine."

Strackany is originally from Wisconsin and started his first job at 14, making oil seals and wafer seals for NASA.

"I told them at the factory that I was 16," he said. "I learned about lathe and mill work there. The company created the wafer seals for loading equipment for the shuttle. We took trips to NASA; I got to do some research on the oil seals. It was just a wonderful job. When the company was sold to another company in Chicago, I decided to come to Colorado. I moved here in 1973."

Barnhart says that Strackany is an essential to the Space Systems Research Center.

"Renny does whatever is needed, from driving our satellites to the launch sites (up to three days each way) to building hardware in the lab, coaching cadets, to launching high-altitude balloons in the summer."