By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Joe Gehman, who developed a love for aviation while growing up in Atmore, also learned the value of treating people with respect. That combination recently led to Gehman being recognized as one of the best of the best at what he does.
Gehman, who currently serves as duty manager for Delta Airlines at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, was recently selected by his fellow company employees for admission into the exclusive Delta Chairman’s Club.
The Atmore native was one of just 100 Delta employees — from 28 Delta stations in four countries, with average service of 21 years — who were chosen for the honor from more than 7,000 nominations received by a company selection committee, which conducted a three-month review process before announcing this year’s honorees. Delta has more than 80,000 employees worldwide.
Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian told the gathering during a red-carpet gala in Atlanta that they should think beyond just the company when considering their inclusion in the club.
“You’re not just the best of the best at Delta,” Bastian told the honorees. “We know Delta is leading the global industry; you’re the best of the best in the world in what you do across the entire airline industry, and it’s extraordinary.”
Gehman, who lives in Pelham, said during a telephone interview that he had received several nominations in the past but had always missed out on the final selections. This year, everything fell into place for him.
“They told us we were the top one percent of one percent,” he said. “To be honest with you, I’ve been nominated every year since they started it, but I guess a lot happened this year that caught their eyes.”
He said he knew of his 2018 nomination but expected another year of almost making it. That’s why he was surprised when he was surprised with the announcement that he was one of the selectees.
“They pulled a pretty good one on me,” he laughed in recollection. “Summertime is our biggest flight schedule of the year. We’re pretty busy, but the company has a theme each month for its employees. We try to have a good time, while at the same time we look over the previous year, things like employee injuries and that type thing. Anyway, they encouraged us to have a family gathering for July 4.”
The dinner was held at a noted Greek restaurant in Birmingham whose owners were frequent Delta flyers, and Gehman was recruited to help with the planning, or at least some of the planning.
“I was involved in planning the party there, but in secret (a company representative) was planning to announce the selections to the Chairman’s Club,” he said. “It was a big surprise, and things like that, you never forget. It was extraordinary, just one of the things the company does for its employees. It humbles me a lot.”
The judges were looking for individuals with a strong work ethic, a spirit of selflessness and a heart for service. Gehman, who worked at United Bank in Atmore while attending Jefferson Davis Community College (now part of Coastal Alabama Community College) regularly begins his work day at 3 a.m., said he developed all three skills as a child in Atmore.
“I feel so honored,” he said. “I give all the credit to my mom, my dad and my family, in terms of how to be successful doing something you love. We are all products of our surroundings, and I had to learn to take care of people and treat them right. For somebody from itty-bitty Atmore, Alabama to be doing something they love, is just amazing. I appreciate where I came from and, frankly, a lot of times I want to come back there.”
He added that his interest in and passion for aviation also came from his family.
“My goal was to study to be a Certified Public Accountant when I went to college,” he said. “But aviation has always been a big part of my family. When I was a teenager, we moved out near the (Atmore Municipal) airport, and our house was parallel to the runway. Our heads were on a swivel, watching Navy training planes and helicopters land and take off out there.
“Also, my dad was from Pennsylvania, and when we would go up there for family reunions, we were all fascinated by the airport in Atlanta. They had observation platforms where you could watch takeoffs and landings. That planted the seed pretty early.”
Another perk that Gehman enjoys is preparation of flights for the University of Alabama’s football team and the visiting teams with which he often also works.
When the Crimson Tide is preparing to fly, Gehman and his crew members are close witness to the pregame routines of Coach Nick Saban and his wife, Terry.
“I love that part of my job, even though my role is a relatively small one,” said the lifetime UA fan, who used to work the control board at a family owned Atmore radio station that broadcast the team’s games. “Miss Terry usually shows up early and spends time with boosters and the athletic department people. She just oozes kindness. Coach Saban is always the first off the bus and the first on the plane. You’ll hardly ever see him interacting with anybody on these flights. He considers them business trips, and he sits with a notebook, writing notes furiously the whole flight.”
The relationship that developed between the Sabans and the Delta employees eventually led to a face-to-face chat session with the legendary coach.
“The coach and Miss Terry hosted me, my wife (Rhonda Gehman) and my daughter at a closed practice session,” he recalled. “Coach talked to us and told us the program couldn’t exist without us, and he spent time at every table. Being an Alabama fan all my life, I’m thankful just to have a taste of something that really affects me like that.”
The honorees received gold Chairman’s Club pins and were reminded of the perks that come with their recognition: two Delta One tickets to anywhere the airline flies; 25,000 My Rewards points; their name installed on an aircraft placard for one year, and a 2019 trip to Toulouse, France, to accept delivery of a $160 million Airbus 350.
After the Chairman’s Club induction ceremony the honorees were taken to the Delta Flight Museum where the gala, hosted by Bastian, Chairman of the Board Frank Blake and other company executives, continued. The museum includes framed photographs of all Chairman’s Club members and their spouses, another fact that fills Gehman with wonder.
“One of the specific things I’m proud of is that one day my great-grandchildren can walk into that museum and see the picture of me and my wife on the wall,” he said. “That’s pretty amazing.”