NIAGARA FALLS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT AIR RESERVE STATION, NY, UNITED STATES
Story by Peter Borys
It was the summer of ‘82. Michael Jackson released one of the best-selling albums of all time – Thriller, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released and became the biggest hit movie of the decade. The (undeclared) Falkland War was going on between Britain and Argentina. Ronald Reagan was president; the U.S. Space Command was founded and a young girl named Denise Yates started her career here at NFARS.
Perhaps a good percentage of the current military and civilian employees at the base weren’t even born yet.
Yates, a service brat, born in Japan to a U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer, a veteran of World War II, Korean, and Vietnam Wars and a Turkish mother. Even before 1982, started out by helping out her parents at Niagara Falls ARS. Her father managed the Falcon Club, now building 314. Back then, it was called the consolidated open mess where her mom worked as the hostess.
“When I was a kid, I used to help out at the swimming pool behind the old Falcon Club at the ‘Sugar Shack,’ a little shed next to the swimming pool where one could buy chips and pop and other snacks,” said Yates. “There (were) a lot of bees in there, which I’m allergic to, but that didn’t stop me,” she joked. “I also helped out at the coat room when there were special events, parties and weddings. My father and mother would play Santa & Mrs. Claus and I was an elf.”
She was hired as a cook at the bowling alley snack bar and would start her day on a Unit Training Assembly (UTA) at 4:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for reservists.
“I’m a morning person,” she explained. “It was great. I became friends with everyone that I worked with and all of the customers. I feel this place was more like family than a work environment. I didn’t mind getting up early going to work. It felt like going to another home,” Yates added.
Yates said a lot has changed over the past 40 years.
“Everyone talks about the bowling alley days. Even now, some people will come in and say, Dee, we miss the bowling alley.”
The bowling alley was situated in the building that now houses the 914th Communications Squadron help desk, base mail room and IT warehouse. One side was a four-lane bowling alley and the other a snack bar that sold burgers, fries, pizza, pop and other snack items. That is from where most of the seasoned employees and retirees remember Denise.
“It was a convenient area. It was in-between where people could come through the front door, place their order and go out the back door. Back then, everyone used to have a break at 2 p.m. They were able to bowl and buy snacks and beverages,” she said.
Yates outlasted many of her former supervisors except for Mike Williams who now is the 914th Air Refueling Wing Services Director.
What hasn’t changed according to Yates is the morale.
“It’s still high; it isn’t as tight as it used to be, but then a lot of the old timers are gone,” she said.
Yates describes herself as a fun-loving person and a single mom with a 20-year-old son. The rest of her family consist of two brothers (one older, one younger), a dog, and two aunts that are both over 100 years old. Both of her parents passed away years ago.
“My father was strict, but a hard worker. He put in many hours and loved what he did which is what I do. I love what I do. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here, but I also have the personality of my mother. People would fall in love with her personality,” said Yates.
Richard Nest, the Community Activities Center Director and her current supervisor, has worked with Yates since 2008.
“There was a merger between the snack bar and the club and that’s when Denise came over,” said Nest. “Her dedication, loyalty, customer service; it’s outstanding. I’ve never seen anything like it. She goes the extra mile for all customers as well as looks out for the employees. You can wait 45 minutes for a chicken finger sub and she will have you smiling and laughing when you leave. If I were serving under the same circumstance, I would have four flat tires on my car,” laughed Nest.
“She’s known half of the base since they were kids or has babysat half of the base’s kids that are now adults. She always comes in even in the worst weather.” Nest added, “when I was out with COVID, she handled everything. She called in everyday to check in on me to make sure I was ok, she even offered to make soup and bring it to my house. She’s really one of a kind. Every air show we’ve had, she’s been a huge factor; she bartended, helping with banquets, et cetera, she never tells me no.”
Yates shares that sense of caring to her customers as well.
“When I see a retiree I haven’t seen in a long time I have to give them a hug. Some older customers, I’ll check up on them to see how they’re doing. I’ve had some customers who helped my son and I through some hard times and it’s good to give back,” said Yates. “I care about everyone here, they’re not just my customers, they’re family as well,” she replied holding back a tear.
A longtime customer Marty Viggato, 914th Maintenance Group training technician, expressed some of his personal thoughts.
“After being hired in the Maintenance Training Office with the Training Manager, Staff Sgt. Alex Millar, we used to visit the snack bar at the bowling alley for a Morning Sausage Egg and Cheese Bagel. She was always cheerful and helpful every time we went in there. During the Christmas season, Denise would bring her son to visit Santa numerous years. A wonderful mother. An old and trusted friend to me and everyone on this reserve station,” said Viggato.
When asked for one of her memorable moments, Yates immediately replied 9/11.
“I just came off of maternity leave and the next day was September 11. That day I was scared,” she explained holding back another tear. “I called my mom from work and told her to tell my son I love him. For the next six months straight-through, my mom raised my son while I was working all those hours during this ordeal. Things just changed right before my eyes.”
She added, “It was unbelievable what we pulled off feeding many troops. Getting them in and out. I remember the lines of box lunches. The back room was filled with them. The troops would sign in, get a breakfast buffet, then get their box lunches and out the back door onto the planes.”
Mike Williams, 914 ARW Services Director said, “The 40 years in of itself is significant but, more importantly, it’s what she contributed to the overall morale of the Niagara Falls Air Base in those years. Simply put, a sense of dedication to always try to do whatever possible for the many generations of customers that she has encountered.”
“It is very comforting to know that whatever comes up, whether it’s a UTA, an emergency feeding, an air show, or traditional day-to-day operations; that the customer will always be very well taken care of. The Niagara Falls Air Base, the 914 ARW, and specifically our 914th Services section has been and continues to be very well served,” expressed Williams.
Yates added, “I want to thank everyone for being a part of my journey. I’m not ready to leave yet, maybe another four more years.”
This summer will “officially” make it 40 years of long and faithful service to the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces at Niagara.