Bull Watkins: local rancher serves Airmen, community

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Trenton Jancze
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

It’s 1957, a beautiful summer night in Altus, Oklahoma, and the lights on Commerce Street are shining bright. Five-year-old Gary Watkins sits with his father in his living room. Outside, airplanes from Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma whiz overhead, streaking through the night sky like shooting stars. What young Watkins, nicknamed “Bull,” doesn’t know is the way those two worlds would be so intimately intertwined in the future.

Watkins has lived in Altus since 1952, one year before the base opened. His family, whose genealogy traces back to the Cherokee tribe, originally moved to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears. Despite this hardship, his family made sure to instill in him a sense of gratitude - a belief in being thankful for the things he has that has shaped who he is today.

Unfortunately, according to Watkins, the base hasn’t always been as connected with the community as it is today.

“During the Vietnam War, there were the people that were mad and those that were glad,” said Watkins. “A lot of the young Airmen would come off base and there was a bad attitude (toward them), and it was a problem. I was always taught to be thankful for our leadership, and after high school I worked on base and got to be around the Airmen more.”

Watkins’ wife, Jude, lived on base when she first moved to Altus, so she saw Airmen’s perspective. She said it was a misunderstanding.

“I think people finally got wiser as they connected with the Airmen,” she said. “The people began to get a better mentality about the base, because it was a small town. That mentality grew to the base and then it was a whole new world.”

Watkins’ thankfulness led to his desire to give back to the community and an openness towards those new to Altus, including the Airmen. Throughout his life, Watkins has opened multiple businesses in Altus including Altus Texaco, Watkins Auto Parts and a telecommunications business which still exists today. He also spent 18 years on the Altus City Council, and served as vice mayor for two of those years.

“I was one of those guys that grew up here that never left,” said Watkins. “I always felt that being on the city council would be a way that we might develop more opportunities and help develop our relationship with the Air Force. [The city] changed over the years, we brought in industry and helped build a town that got everybody on one mindset.”

The Altus community has a strong connection with the base, and people like the Watkins have been there to bridge the gap between native Altusians and Airmen. It’s clear that Watkins doesn’t regret staying in Altus his entire life, and looks forward to supporting events that bring these two groups together, like the annual cattle drive on base.

“We’ve been blessed with meeting so many quality, quality people over the years,” said Watkins. “I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great people too, fourth and fifth generation locals. We’ve been blessed with this town.”