William Thomas Bust

A bust of William Thomas greets travelers as they enter the William M Thomas Terminal, but there is no additional information on the terminal’s namesake. 

A year into Mark Witsoe’s tenure as head of the Kern County Airports Department, he has a lot to be proud of.

With a federal grant secured, an American Airlines Dallas connection began in March to the delight of local air travelers. In December, a second flight will be added. Construction adjacent to the William M. Thomas Terminal is at a brisk pace.

“We are working with our neighbors, an online retailer (Amazon) and Silver Wings Commerce Center,” Witsoe said. “With the increased activity, the airport environment is going to foster more employment while being a part of the supply chain for consumers.”

No question he’s accomplished much in 12 months – and certainly had bigger fish to fry. But I wondered again about the optics inside the 13-year-old terminal and gem of the county’s airport system.

Nearly two years ago, before his arrival, I inquired about what does and doesn’t greet terminal visitors.

Why was there a giant photo of the famed Bixby Bridge in Big Sur near Gates 2, 3 and 5 instead of an iconic piece of local scenery like the majestic Kern River?

And why was there still no plaque beneath a bust of Bill Thomas informing travelers of the terminal’s namesake? At the time, then-Airports Chief Financial Officer Tamarah Harber-Pickens said no one had ever inquired about the absence of a plaque but would look into the possibility of one and agreed that the Bixby Bridge photo was somewhat peculiar. She said she would ask media giant Clear Channel, which owns the wall billboard, about swapping the stock photo with a regional one.

Not long after, a Clear Channel representative reached out to Bakersfield Life in hopes of connecting with the Arts Council of Kern and the Museum of Art about partnership possibilities inside the terminal. But to date, neither organization’s directors have been contacted but have said they still welcome the opportunity.

According to Witsoe, there was a plaque at one time.

“I believe it was vandalized and stolen,” he said.

But Leigh Ann Cook, First District Supervisor Mick Gleason’s chief of staff and former congressional aide for Thomas who oversaw the bust project, says there was no signage.

“I do not recall there being a discussion about a plaque other than what is inscribed on the marble with his name,” Cook said, adding that the project was funded by the esteemed former congressman.

Travelers to Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City can read about its namesake and native son. Same for passengers at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Granted, those icons will forever be household names. But while William Thomas may be a household name to locals now, it is all the more reason to have something for visitors and those decades from now who are unfamiliar.

In the opening scene of the time-honored film classic “Animal House,” even fictional Faber College founder Emil Faber has a plaque beneath his statue, albeit a tongue-in-cheek “Knowledge Is Good.”

Humor aside, Bakersfield’s terminal, in a city larger than Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and in a county consistently ranked in the top three oil and agriculture producers with a terminal that serves more than 700,000 passengers every year, can do better. Construction in the airport’s corridor will only continue to grow. It’s time we upped some of the optics inside the terminal.

“Since arriving, I have been focusing on larger elements as we continue to enhance the quality of life, be a model of excellence and foster a culture of innovation,” Witsoe said. “Researching this will certainly be added to the list. We need to see who owns the rights to the work and is it something that I can pay for out of my budget.”

Googling the “Almanac of American Politics” will yield a treasure-trove of research for the 22nd Congressional District that Thomas represented for 28 years.

This community owes a debt of gratitude for his public service and the millions of dollars he secured in local road improvements. Isn’t it high time the bust of him at the county’s primary commercial airport educates visitors to his vast accomplishments? 

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.

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