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Falls Air Reserve Station will salute retiring Nolf Public affairs director's 30 years at the base to be celebrated at party

Neil E. Nolf, public affairs director at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, has organized hundreds of media events and served under 13 commanders during his 30 years at the base.

He has fielded telephone calls from Pentagon generals, witnessed the tragedy of a fatal midair collision and felt the triumph of defeating two closure orders from the Pentagon.

He has received several awards for his work, but on the eve of his retirement, Nolf will tell you it's not about him.

"It's about the people who work and serve at the base," he said Thursday.

"Every day, I get to work with heroes."

Nolf, 55, steps down Dec. 31. Friends and co-workers will join him today on the base for a retirement party in his honor.

The Town of Porter resident and father of two -- a student son and a daughter who is a church pastor -- plans to write a book on military history.

He will be taking a leaf from his great-great grandfather, W.M. Empson, who was captured during the American Civil War and later wrote about it in a book titled, "What I saw and suffered."

Nolf's job at the base -- coordinating public events and dealing with the media on all matters -- was more about succeeding than suffering.

"It was always easy for me to come to work for the past 30 years and tell the story of the outstanding people who work here," he said.

Lining the wall outside his office are 13 framed photographs of his past commanders.

"I call them the 13 warriors," he said.

Nolf, always the cool, calm, nattily dressed civilian, is not one to show emotion, but it comes to the surface when he remembers certain events.

"The greatest moments have been when our troops return home after dangerous missions," he said. "They have put their lives on the line and when they come back safely into the waiting arms of their families, that can get to you."

Deployment kicked in big time during the first Gulf War in 1990-91, after Sadam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The base sent hundreds of troops to the war zone in the fall of 1990.

"We had never been deployed to that extent," Nolf said. "This was a major deployment that significantly changed the role of this base."

The missions came fast and furious with the start of the Iraq War. In 2003 and 2004, the Air Force Reserve's 914th Airlift Wing was the most deployed reserve unit in the nation, sending as many as 200 citizen airmen and women overseas at a time for tours of duty that lasted six months to a year.

Off the base, the troops are people from all walks of life -- doctors, nurses, pilots, technicians, teachers -- who put their jobs on hold and leave their families when called upon to serve.

"The folks here have tremendous character and a selfless spirit of volunteerism," Nolf said. "They're always ready to perform their mission, no matter how difficult."

The 1,200 members of the 914th Airlift Wing share the base with 900 reservists in the State National Guard's 107th Air Refueling Wing. Starting in 2009, the base also will be home to about 600 Army reservists. In addition to the citizen soldiers, the base has 750 full-time employees in a broad range of jobs.

Nolf, who was born in Kenmore, didn't plan on an Air Force career when he received a degree in education from Buffalo State College. With teaching jobs scarce, he went through two federal jobs -- as a service representative with the Social Security Administration in Buffalo and as an administrative assistant with the FBI in Washington, D.C. -- before landing a job in charge of inventory and audit at the Niagara Falls air base.

He became a reservist with the 914th Airlift Wing, training personnel in the use of protective military equipment in the event of hazardous situations.

As a boy, Nolf used to go to air shows at the base with his parents and watch in awe as the Blue Angels aerobatic team performed feats of precision flying.

Nolf was in the emergency response team when a member of the Blue Angels was killed in a midair collision with another plane during the 1985 air show. The other pilot ejected safely.

"I wasn't in public affairs at the time, but this was a national media story," he said. "I realized how important it was for the country and the community to understand the importance of the base and its military missions."

In 1987, Nolf became the public affairs officer.

Among the difficult times were the two occasions, in 1995 and 2005, when the air base dodged two closure bullets from the Pentagon. The Niagara Falls Military Affairs Council, a civilian organization headed by Merrell Lane and John Cooper, two Niagara Falls business operators, rallied thousands of residents to save the base. Extraordinary community support from area business leaders, politicians and everyday citizens resulted in the base being removed from the national closure list.

Nolf speaks proudly of the Niagara Lodge, a ski-lodge-type hotel for visiting Air Reserve man and women, retired military people and foreign dignitaries.

"We've gone from a 1950s-era barracks with shared facilities to modern, individual rooms," he said. "This was always a quality of life issue to me. None of the folks who serve have to do this -- they're all volunteers. We have to treat them with dignity."

The lodge was part of a multimillion-dollar construction program that will include a new fire station and a $27 million Armed Forces Reserve Center.

Nolf's successor is yet to be named.

Community leaders said he will be missed.

"He's done an excellent job," said Lane. "With the contacts he's made over the years and his relationships with people and organizations throughout Western New York, he will be hard to replace."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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