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Gainesville Naval Flight Officer presented Wings of Gold After 50 Years

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By Midshipman Jennifer Fillebrown, University of Florida Navy ROTC

Almost 50 years late, a former Navy officer was pinned with his "Wings of Gold" and presented his official certificate designating him as a naval flight officer (NFO).

Willard Ray Kesling, PhD, a former Navy lieutenant and presently the director of choral activities at the University of Florida, was honored during an informal ceremony in Gainesville, Dec.1.

Thirty former naval aviators attended the event, all of whom had been members of the Naval Air Training Command Choir, a group once directed by Lt. Kesling back in the 1970s. They were in Gainesville at the invitation of the university to participate, with more than 200 other singers and an orchestra, in a Christmas performance celebrating the 200th anniversary of the carol, "Silent Night."

"I feel so honored," said Kesling. "These guys are my brothers in arms and they are the real heroes. I was just a conductor."

Retired Navy Capt. David Carlson, another former director of the choir, presented the wings and certificate signed by Chief of Naval Air Training Rear Adm. Greg Harris. The choir alumni serenaded Kesling with its signature theme song, "Mighty Navy Wings," as he was pinned.

Having completed all the advanced NFO training and qualifications in 1971 at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, and NAS Glynco, Georgia, Kesling had verbal orders to report for further assignment in A-6 aircraft with the "Intruders" of Attack Squadron (VA) 128 at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington. Meanwhile, the vacant billet of director of the choir needed to be filled quickly, as it was a major player in supporting the Navy's aviation recruiting effort at the time. With a Bachelor of Arts in music from the University of Lynchburg under his belt, and his previous time as soloist and student director of the choir while an aviation officer candidate, Kesling's vocal and conducting abilities were held in high regard by the Navy.

Without delay, his verbal orders to VA-128 were withdrawn and he received written orders to immediately report back to Pensacola as the director of the Naval Air Training Command Choir. For naval aviators, being pinned with the "Wings of Gold" is a memorable milestone in their career. Unfortunately, Kesling was unable to be "winged" prior to his departure from NAS Glynco.

When fellow former choir members became aware of this oversight this year, they went through Navy channels and obtained Kesling's original designation certificate and permission to conduct an official winging ceremony. Kesling was unaware of this effort until he had his wings pinned on in the presence of his choir colleagues.

After he left the Navy in 1975, Kesling earned a doctorate in Chorale Music at the University of Utah and went forward in his career as an internationally respected conductor. He had his directorial debut at Carnegie Hall in 1991 and has since has worked with hundreds of chorale ensembles and 43 professional symphony orchestras in 25 countries.

One of his career highlights was in Russia where he produced a performance of Handel's "Messiah" with the Moscow State Chamber Orchestra and the Bolshoi Opera Chorus. Within the U.S., he has received the Congressional Order of Merit, the Ronald Reagan Gold Medal, the Congressional Medal of Distinction, and the Spirit of Gainesville Award for the Arts.

Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA), located in Corpus Christi, Texas, trains the world's finest combat quality aviation professionals, delivering them at the right time, in the right numbers, and at the right cost to a Naval Force that is where it matters, when it matters.

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