Editor’s note: This profile is part of a UMUC series in celebration of National Military Appreciation Month.
At 95, Jack Milton of Arlington, Virginia, has lived two complete careers studded with adventure and financial success. But even 50 years after he finally completed his bachelor’s degree as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Milton looks back on his association with University of Maryland University College as essential to his life.
Since 1989, Jack has contributed over $440,000 toward UMUC’s scholarships and initiatives. In 2010, he established the John L. and Symantha Milton Scholarship Fund with a charitable remainder trust. After learning about the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program, which provides UMUC scholarships to caregivers of wounded service personnel, this year he redirected his existing scholarship fund to support the Pillars program. Additionally, because he was so inspired by the program and what it achieves, he gave another $25,000 so that even more caregivers could receive scholarships.
“Active duty personnel get free education, and veterans get the GI bill,” he said. “But these caregivers have no way to get financial aid after all of the sacrifices they have made in caring for our wounded vets.”
Rich Blewitt, founder of the Blewitt Foundation. which manages and supports the Pillars of Strength Scholarship Program in association with UMUC, said the money generated by Milton’s endowment will go a long way to funding the full scholarships that are offered to the caregivers. The foundation offered seven last year, and is hoping to provide more each year, especially if Milton’s donation inspires others to give.
“Jack has a lot of choices to make on what he supports,” Blewitt said. “So, I am thrilled that he has selected pillars as one. This is one more sign of how Jack has been committed to UMUC all of these years.”
As one of the few World War II veterans still on the university’s alumni rolls, Milton said he was delighted when he was invited to attend the Veterans Day ceremony at UMUC’s Largo, Maryland, facility. That’s when he learned about the Pillars of Strength Foundation.
He said his donation combines his appreciation for the caregivers with his recognition of what his UMUC education did for each of his careers.
“In addition to what I got educationally from my UMUC education, it also opened a lot of doors,” he said in a recent interview. The quality of the political science education he received led to military assignments coming his way, as well as his promotion to full colonel. With his undergraduate degree in hand, the Air Force sent him to Boston University to get a master’s degree in communications and public relations. That degree helped when he switched to a financial career with Merrill Lynch.
Raised in Kentucky, Milton’s military career goes back to his freshman year at Western Kentucky University when he joined the ROTC just as the United States entered World War II. In May 1943, during his sophomore year, his ROTC class was called to active duty. After basic training and Officers Candidate School, he was recruited to become a pilot in what was then the Army Air Corps.
“I was always interested in aviation as a kid; I jumped at the chance,” he said. But when he finally finished his pilot training, the war was winding down. He didn’t see combat but decided to stay with the Army as millions of troops demobilized after the war. He was one of the few World War II vets who was offered a commission in the regular Army at war’s end, and he made the transition to the Air Force when it was created in 1947.
With the rapid development of military aircraft, he became a test pilot at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, working with such legends as Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier, Bob Hoover, who revolutionized modern acrobatic flying, and Jim Doolittle, son of World War II legend Jimmy Doolittle.
“The Air Force was a glamorous organization and if you were a test pilot you were very glamorous,” Milton said. He married a fashion model named Sammie, who was willing to follow and support him throughout his varied career. She continued her own career in fashion and design and they shared similar interests in promoting educational opportunities.
Milton was best known for standardizing the cockpit of military aircraft. Before he arrived on the scene, each new airplane had its own distinct cockpit with controls and instruments arranged differently from those in other planes. That slowed training and caused accidents as pilots struggled to learn a new aircraft’s system.
His job in the Korean War was to design and test new equipment and procedures for use in combat. He was a project engineer as well as a test pilot.
“During my 31 years, I flew every kind of plane in the Air Force,” he said, adding that he accumulated more than 12,000 flying hours.
While testing aircraft in Alaska for three years, he crashed a couple of times and once was lost for three days in the middle of winter. As an air attaché to the Congo from 1963 to 1965, he won a Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Force’s highest flying honor, for a mission supporting the Congolese military during Russian and Chinese-backed insurgencies. The circumstances are still off the record.
And then he was assigned to the Pentagon, and that’s where he launched his UMUC career. At the time, UMUC was a division of the University of Maryland Education Department that served the needs of service members, veterans and working adults. Milton had discovered the university offered night classes right at the Pentagon—classes that attracted about 15,000 students who were not only from the military but also from other government jobs.
“I like education, and I was self-educated to a point. I had done a lot of reading—most of the great books. But I also realized the value of having a degree,” Milton said.
Even though his work as the officer in charge of a Special Air Warfare division during the Vietnam War build-up was grueling, he enrolled.
“At 6 p.m., the conference rooms in the Pentagon became classrooms,” he said. “I could leave my desk at 5:45, walk into a conference room and attend class for two or three hours, and then go back to my desk and work some more because nighttime at the Pentagon was when I could communicate with people working in the daylight in Vietnam.”
With the credits he already had earned at Western Kentucky and in his military career, he was able to finish UMUC’s bachelor’s degree in two years.
“We had great instructors,” he said. “People who were on active duty in the military or at the State Department would come in. We had retired ambassadors teaching. Our teachers had amazing practical experience. I went to a lot of different colleges, but those were the best classes I ever had.”
After his stint at the Pentagon, Milton became director of plans for a C-130 division based in Taiwan while flying combat missions in Vietnam.
But even before retiring from the military in 1974, Milton became active in supporting UMUC and Maryland higher education. He joined a University of Maryland fundraising campaign and made a very generous donation of $100,000. He became friends with John Toll, who was president of Maryland’s university system. He was a charter member of the University of Maryland Foundation Board and was appointed to UMUC’s Board of Visitors.
But his real affection was for UMUC. “I told them my heart really is with UMUC because they’re servicing the military and that was me.” He was appointed to its board of visitors while working with then-president Ben Massey on its own fund-raising campaign.
After leaving the military, he was hired by Merrill Lynch to begin a career in personal finance. He became one of the company’s top producers and a first vice president, giving him the means to support the university. But when his wife, Sammie, suffered a severe stroke in 2002, he dropped out of his UMUC activities to help with her care for the next 14 years until she died.
Now, he says, he’s ready to do more for the university that helped him make two successful careers.
Cover photo: Jack Milton is at center in this picture, taken at UMUC’s Veterans Day ceremony on November 12, 2018, in the General John W. Vessey Jr. Ballroom of the College Park Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. He is pictured with (left) Dr. James D. Fielder, Secretary of Maryland Higher Education Commission, and (right) Gen. Carter F. Ham, U.S. Army, Retired President and Chief Executive Officer, Association of the United States Army.