On the court and in the air

Look around. If you chose seven belongings whose stories would impart an understanding of who you are and the life you’ve lived, what would those things be?

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter

For a man who spent 40 years in the air, Dudley Bearden has remained remarkably grounded to his hometown of Columbus.

Although he now lives just over the county line in the Point Harbor community in Clay County, his passions and interests invariably lead back to where those seeds were planted, the Columbus of his youth.

“What I remember is the freedom of growing up in a small town in the 1950s,” says Bearden, 70.

1. That freedom shaped both his interests and personality, and it is his HOMETOWN that Bearden considers the first of his seven things.

“We had the run of the town back then,” he says. “Columbus had a bus service then, and for 15 cents you could ride from one end of the town to the other.”

Those roamings led to places like the YMCA or the recently-completed Propst Park. There were also pool halls and playing fields, providing Bearden an endless variety of sports opportunities, including the one sport he still enjoys today.

2. “When I was a kid, I played about every sport there was. But there was about a six-year period when I just stopped growing. I was 5-foot-6. That’s when I started playing TENNIS.”

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

“Professor Grossnickle at Mississippi University for Women had built three clay tennis courts for his daughters and that became the Magnolia Tennis Club,” Bearden says. “It started with a group of probably a dozen or so men; a lot of them were former military guys — some of them pilots. I was about 12, but they took me in as a water boy and a player, but mostly because I was someone who would go over to the Bee-Bop Inn and buy beer and bring it back for them. Back then, towns played each other and I got to go with them when they went to the other towns to play. That was an eye-opening experience for a kid, being around those military guys.”

Perhaps it was his exposure to the rough-around-the-edges veterans on the tennis court that fueled Bearden’s free spirit, something his father noted.

3. Bearden’s dad, Bill Bearden, was an attorney and a judge. His father and older brother had gone to Ole Miss. Noting Dudley’s personality, his father sent him instead to MISSISSIPPI STATE, which he viewed as a better, less tempting environment.

Even so, the results were marginal. By his own admission, Dudley was an indifferent student. He found The Southernaire club and the appeal of all those W girls far more interesting.

4. “After my junior year, my grades weren’t that good,” he says. “My dad told me if I was going to go back for my senior year, I’d have to pay for it. He got me a summer job in Franklington, Louisiana, as a WELDER. For 10 hours a day, six days a week, I welded. When the summer was over, I figured I had better get serious about school. That summer was one of those defining experiences in my life.”

He graduated in 1969, but had no idea what he wanted to do next.

5. A few days before graduation, he was approached by a Marine recruiter. Suddenly, he found his past, present and future converged.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

“He asked me what my plans were, and when I told him I didn’t know, he asked if I’d be interested in being a MARINE PILOT.”

Bearden thought of his childhood — not only listening to the stories of those veterans he got to know at the Magnolia Tennis Club, but also remembering those summers he spent in Tuscaloosa with his uncle, a Marine major general known as “Major General Big Foot,” a towering 6-foot-4 presence in the eyes of his nephews.

“Where do I sign up?” Bearden asked the recruiter.

Soon, Bearden was off to Officers Candidate School in Virginia, then to pilot training in North Carolina, where he was assigned to the A-6 Intruder plane. By then, the war was winding down and Bearden never flew in combat, although he did fly across the North Atlantic, then in the A-6. Bearden flew for the Marines for five years in active duty, then another 10 years in the reserves.

“It was such a great experience, especially flying those single-engine aircrafts. The camaraderie we had as pilots was something that has stayed with me. I’m still in touch with a lot of those pilots.”

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

6. For Bearden, the military training led to a 25-year career as a COMMERCIAL PILOT at United Airlines.

“I landed in every state and many countries,” he says. “I’m retired now, and so is every single aircraft I flew at United — the 727, DC10, 757, 767. It was a great ride, but I would rather never see another hotel room.”

Here again, his love of his hometown emerges. For his entire career, Bearden commuted from Columbus to Chicago, where he was based. “I never really wanted to live anywhere else,” he says.

7. His flying career may have ended then, but his association with pilots did not.

Bearden spent eight years as a SIMULATOR INSTRUCTOR at Columbus Air Force Base.

“ I love it,” he says. “Being around those young pilot was such a great experience. They were motivated, prepared and fun to work with. To me, it was a chance to give back, but it was also a chance for me to sort of relive my own experiences as a young kid, listening to the stories of those pilots at the tennis club.”