Listen to this article

URBANA — Leon Cardiff has seen more than 70 countries during his Air Force career and every continent except Antarctica. Now he’s coming back to Urbana from his Maryland home.

The 50th reunion of the Urbana High School Class of 1969 is Friday and Saturday, and though Cardiff said he was an underachiever at school, he went on to a long military career that included time in Vietnam — and eventually a college degree.

Senior Master Sgt. Cardiff said he had to get a waiver to enlist because he was 3 pounds under 115, the service’s minimum weight for his height.

In his career in the Air Force, Cardiff “would go far from the corn, wheat and soybean fields of central Illinois to places he had been taught about or seen in the history books while in junior and senior high school in Urbana.”

For instance, Cardiff provided communications on board Air Force One for President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

In 1986, on the night of the Berlin disco bombing, he was on board Air Force Two with Vice President George Bush in Germany. They were to leave the next morning on a trip to Arab countries.

And two years later, he again traveled with Bush on the vice presidential plane, this time back to his home state — to attend the Illinois State Fair.

Over the years, Cardiff flew several weekend congressional trips to Beirut, and he was a crew member on flights that took then-Sens. John Glenn, Sam Nunn and Jim Sasser to Kathmandu, Nepal; they passed by Mount Everest.

Despite those notable experiences, this weekend in Urbana will be a big event for Cardiff.

“Many of us started out in kindergarten together and went through many of the same trials in our teenage years,” he said.

“Coming home to Illinois, driving down the country road to visit the family cemetery in Ogden, remembering the smell of the fresh, rich, dark soil the farmer has just tilled for his crops in April, recalling the windows rolled down and listening to the pop hits played by Ron Riley on WLS radio,” he said. “Those are memories you never forget when coming home to Urbana.”


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).