Lo and behold, the Vietnam War was going on at that time, and so they tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I'd report to Texas for the draft. And so I said, "Oh my goodness." I'd gotten married to my wife, Elizabeth Walton, while I was in school, and she was with me at that time. I hated to have to leave her and to put my engineering career at General Mills on hold. I went down and talked to a recruiter and said, "I'd like to go into Officer's Candidate School. If I have to go in, I'd like to be an officer." They said, "No problem." So, I signed up.
I went into OCS and ended up being an artillery officer. I did basic and advanced training, and officer school, in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the rest of it out in California, at Fort Irwin. From there I was ordered to Vietnam. Elizabeth went back to Memphis and I went over as a second lieutenant, as an individual replacement.
I'll never forget the day I reported over there. I got off a plane in 'Nam without any combat gear and they were shooting rockets into the airfield and we were running around in civilian clothes, trying to find cover. I said, "Boy this is no way to enter a combat zone!" We made it okay and I spent a year over there ('68 and '69). I was still looking at those dreams, looking at the car magazines that came our way. I said, "Boy, if I get back out of this mess, I should have some money saved and I'm gonna get myself a nice sports car."
So when I came back, I went shopping and got a black '69 Corvette. That was the car of choice-I'd finally made up my mind what it was going to be! That was flying low. I may not be able to fly in the air, but I was flyin' low with that '69!
VETTE: Was it a big-block or a small-block?
WC: Unfortunately, it was a small-block. But I used to wind it up, and it was fast for me.
I went back to work for General Mills, picked up where I left off. I got into grad school at the University of Toledo, where the General Mills plant that I worked at was. I earned my masters degree.
Around that time, General Mills, er, General Motors-they're the same initials, GM-came to me and asked me if I'd be interested in coming to work for them: "We have an institute up in Flint, Michigan, and we'd like to bring you in on the faculty and have you teach on quality and reliability." I was doing a lot of that where I was. I said, "I got a great job, but I'll come up and take a look" I was interested in finding out what kind of school was up there, how the school was.
I took my wife up and looked around at everything, and I was so impressed that, when I got back I said, "Well, I guess maybe I do want to go to work for this outfit, for a while, anyway." But I told them (they knew about my love for Corvettes), "You know, I'd like to work for the Corvette plant one day; I don't want to teach all my life. I can do this stuff, but it's not what I went to school for. I'd rather be on production management, I'd rather be where they're building Corvettes."
So they told me, "If you come on the faculty for a period of time-we're not going to tell you for how long, because we may be able to do something for you after a few years, we don't know-but trust us, we'll help you leave there and go into the production assembly plant where Corvettes are built, if that's what you want."
So, I took 'em up on that-it was a gentlemen's agreement-and taught at the institute from '72 to '76. I got one promotion, from assistant to associate professor. During that time, I entered a doctoral program at Michigan State, in mechanical engineering and systems analysis; did all the course work, the comps, was well on my way. I was working on my dissertation when they came to me one day and said, "Wil, are you ready to go?
I said, "Whoa, wait a minute, ready to go? After this time?"
"Yeah, you can pick where you want to go. We don't know if this opportunity will be here later, but it's here, now. You always said you wanted the opportunity."