Slyman Named State Building Group’s Builder of the Year

Todd Slyman

Todd Slyman of Huntsville has been named the Home Builders Association of Alabama’s Jerry Kyser Builder of the Year for 2020. He was honored during the HBAA’s Convention awards presentation recently in Destin, Fla.

The Jerry Kyser Builder of the Year Award recognizes a builder member from a local association with more than 500 members who has shown outstanding service to their local and state associations, their community and the building industry as a whole.

Slyman of Placemakers North America has been a member of the Huntsville Madison County Builders Association since 1993. He has served in numerous leadership roles there, including president in 1999. He was inducted into the HCMBA Housing Hall of Fame in 2008.

Slyman has also been active within the HBAA, serving as president in 2012. He has also served on the HBAA’s Governmental Affairs Committee, Affordable Housing Committee, and the Alabama Home Builders Foundation.  He was inducted into the Alabama Building Industry Hall of Fame in 2018.

Contenders for 2020 Small Business of the Year Announced

More than 160 businesses and individuals are in contention for top honors at the 35th annual Huntsville-Madison County Chamber Small Business of the Year Awards.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oct. 20 event will be a virtual presentation. It will be from 4-6 p.m. and fees are $25 for individual members and $50 for individual nonmembers.

The categories and contenders are:

Culinary Business of the Year

Emerging Business of the Year

Local “Creative” of the Year

Government Contracting: Professional Services of the Year

Government Contracting: Technology Business of the Year

Medical Practice of the Year

Nonprofit of the Year

Professional Services Business of the Year

Retailer of the Year

Service Business of the Year

Technology Business of the Year

Woman-Owned Business of the Year

Young Professional of the Year

Russell G Brown Executive Leadership Award

With a Heart of Gold, Colin Wayne and Redline Make Products of Steel

TANNER — Decorated Army veteran seriously injured in Afghanistan.

Redline Steel has produced some 5 million products from its 110,000 square-foot facility in SouthPoint Business Park.

Traveling the world as a fitness model.

Entrepreneur and steel manufacturing guru.

Humanitarian and philanthropist in line to receive Huntsville’s “Key to the City”.

A person can accomplish a lot in just 31 years. Ask Huntsville native and social media extraordinaire Colin Wayne.

His company, Redline Steel, is ranked 110th among the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America – and is the fastest-growing company in the state

. In addition, Inc. 5000 recognized Redline Steel as the No. 4 Fastest Growing Manufacturing Company nationally with a recorded growth increase of 3,215 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Quickly becoming one of the largest steel monogram companies in the U.S., Redline Steel is expecting to surpass $100 million in sales by the end of the year.

But, to Wayne, giving to the community is what moves him.

“I am an entrepreneur, but I have always been a humanitarian and philanthropist at heart,” he said.

Wayne’s journey to becoming a steel manufacturing expert has been nothing short of extraordinary.

He was seriously injured in a rocket attack eight years ago in Afghanistan and spent six months in physical therapy and recovery from lumbar fusion surgery on his back.

Transitioning out of the Army in 2013, he traveled the world as a fitness model gracing the cover of more than 50 men’s health magazines and promoting products for Under Armour and Nike.

Moving back to Huntsville in 2015, it was a fortuitous business transaction that led Wayne to steel manufacturing and eventually build Redline Steel into his own company in January 2016.

Colin Wayne makes a presentation to Huntsville Police Capt. Mike Izzo. (Redline Photo)

Since then, Wayne has paid his good fortune back to the local, regional, and national communities that have resulted in his success many times over.

His company donated $50,000 to the Huntsville Police Department and, in 2017, donated $25,000 to the American Red Cross. Redline Steel has also given back to Alabama farmers, veterans groups, schoolteachers, and truckers.

In the meantime, like hundreds of other businesses, Redline Steel has been adversely affected by the pandemic.

But, unlike hundreds of other businesses, he didn’t let it adversely affect his employees. Redline Steel employs more than 85 employees and based on current projections, Wayne expects that to reach over 100 by end of the year.

“When the coronavirus hit this spring, I doubled our workforce, and we did not lay anyone off, even during the worst of it,” Wayne said. “Then, to lessen the negative impact, I paid all our employees’ house payments in April.

“The coronavirus has been challenging because we have struggled like everyone else to find ways to combat it and keep going. It caused a lot of stress on the company’s growth because of the unknowns and we have had more unemployment the past couple months than we have had in over 50 years.

“People aren’t spending like they were before the pandemic, so we had to get creative to find different ways to monetize.”

He said now that almost every state including Alabama has mandatory mask requirements, they began getting a lot of requests for them through their website. They set up a partnership to make and sell face masks but – to him – that wasn’t enough.

“We donated over $4 million in products to provide support for essential healthcare workers and partnered with my friend, actress Megan Fox, to donate $3.2 million to medical support personnel and first responders,” he said.

From its 110,000 square-foot facility in SouthPoint Business Park just off Interstates 65 and 565 in Tanner, Redline Steel manages all manufacturing and fulfillment coming from their online retail store. In its first four years in business, they have moved some 5 million products. Their mostly steel-based products include personalized and monogrammed gifts, home décor, jewelry, children’s items, and accessories.

Colin Wayne takes a selfie with President Trump after a ceremony in Washington.

This year, President Trump invited him to the White House where he awarded Wayne with a signed commendation plaque. They also took a selfie together and Trump bought an American flag from his company’s Patriotic Flag Collection.

More recently, he was nominated for the 2020 Russell G. Brown Executive Leadership Award in Alabama for Small Businesses and will be receiving Huntsville’s Key to the City recognition for his charitable community involvement.

In August, Redline Steel launched three nonprofit campaigns.

“I look for causes whose missions align with my values and beliefs,” Wayne said. “My five-year-old niece was recently diagnosed with cancer and the Olivia Hope Foundation specializes in pediatric cancer.

“She is currently in remission, but she is still on oral chemotherapy and it is very difficult.”

The Olivia Hope Foundation was created in honor of 11-year-old Olivia Hope LoRusso, who lost a 15-month fight with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Redline Steel is offering exclusive home décor pieces with every donation. For information, visit oliviahope.org.

“We are also launching a campaign with Midnight Mission,” he said. “They feed the homeless and, of course, that is important to me because 70 percent of homeless people are war veterans.”

In August, a long list of Hollywood celebrities teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to promote a social media campaign called #Hammertime. Redline Steel became involved by making a special steel hammer to send to every person who donated $25 or more.

“And Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “They are a much larger organization obviously, but they are also a Christian organization that helps people in need to build homes.”

Church Street Family Recruits Executive Sous Chef from Miami

It is a strategic move resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Executive Chef Kannon Swaris

Huntsville restaurateurs Matthew and Stephanie Mell of the Church Street Family Group worked with New York-based celebrity chef Jimmy Canora to conduct a nationwide search for a new executive chef who can help them navigate through unprecedented times for the food and beverage industries.

Officially stepping into the position this week, Executive Chef Kannon Swaris has moved to Huntsville from Miami where he was most recently the Executive Sous Chef at Nobu Miami. He opened Nobu as a junior sous chef, working under Nobu Chef Thomas Buckley. 

He was senior sous chef of Terra Mare at the Conrad Hotel and opened Isabelle’s, an Italian-American restaurant at the Ritz Carlton.

Swaris will oversee all culinary aspects of Church Street Family’s six Huntsville restaurants, supervise menu and restaurant development and direct the hiring and training of the culinary staff at all six venues.

The Church Street Family owns the Church Street Wine Shoppe, Purveyor at the Avenue Huntsville, Mazzara’s Italian Kitchen and Pourhouse at Stovehouse. They are also planning to open two venues: Catacomb435 in September and The Corner Pour in October.

According to the Mells, the challenges of the pandemic on the restaurant and entertainment industries require teamwork and exceptional leadership in order to not only move their company forward, but to raise the hospitality bar and increase tourism and travel to Huntsville during these challenging times. 

“We are extremely excited to introduce Chef Kannon,” said Stephanie Mell. “One of his first undertakings is the redevelopment of menus at all locations where he will infuse his own style and talents into each dish. We feel honored to have him on our team.”

In the meantime, Canora will continue to work with the Mells to further develop the CSF brand. An award-winning cookbook author and corporate consulting chef at Delmonico’s Wall Street, Canora honed his skills at the Tribeca Grill in Manhattan, owned by actor Robert DeNiro. Canora’s latest cookbook Italian Family Traditions with a Twist is due out in October.

Sit Down with Success: Restaurateur Stephanie Kennedy-Mell

After she spent more than 20 years in the fashion and apparel industry, Stephanie Kennedy-Mell and her husband Matthew Mell opened the Church Street Wine Shoppe in Huntsville.

Now their Church Street Family owns Purveyor at the Avenue, Pourhouse at Stovehouse; Mazzara’s at Stovehouse; and, in spite of the uncertainty of COVID-19, they are about to open Catacomb 435, a speakeasy in the basement of Downtown Self Storage at the corner of Jefferson Street and Clinton Avenue.

Four restaurants and a fifth on the way – aren’t you facing unprecedented challenges?

I look at it as a time to work on your bobbing and weaving skills. The alternative is to get overwhelmed by it and it’s easy enough outside of COVID for small business to get overwhelmed. We take things as they come at us. Adjust, ask questions, prioritize, and handle things as they come at us. Bobbing and weaving all the time and repeating our mantra #keepmovingforward.

How are you getting through it?

We live in an amazing community. It is so supportive of small business and we feel very lucky for that.

We are extremely cautious with our customers and our employees, thanks to relationships we have with people at the hospital.

They have guided us on how to sanitize our restaurants properly and thoroughly; how to deal with positive cases, and how to follow protocols so we can stay open and keep people safe.

They provide us with quick testing, so all our employees are tested for the virus before they are hired on at the Church Street Family. It must come back negative before they can start.

What advice would you give someone getting into the hospitality business right now?

I’m not sure it’s the best time to start a new business, so if you are not already established, I would advise them to hold off.

If they are already established, I say giving up is not the answer. Go slow, be cautious, do your due diligence, and market yourself using social media to reassure people you have survived and are following protocols and guidelines.

How are things at Stovehouse?

It is a great socially distanced space, mostly outdoors, and the tables are socially distanced. It is a comfortable place to go right now to eat and drink, play bocce ball and enjoy music. It is very popular and still growing. The tenants talk to each other daily and have conversations about what is working and what is not; and what we can do together.

And the future?

It is all about attitude. This too shall pass, so keep your chin up. Have a plan and execute your plan. You may have to alter that plan but stay with it.

Klasing Brings 20-plus Years of Experience to Huntsville’s Unity Psychiatric Care

Dr. Donald Klasing has been named medical director of Unity Psychiatric Care.

DR. DONALD KLASING

A board-certified psychiatrist, Klasing will oversee the hospital’s clinical teams treating adults with mental health challenges or behavioral complications associated with dementia.

Klasing, with more than 20 years of experience, will also offer outpatient psychiatric services to adults. He will also offer telemedical services and on-site nursing home visits. All CDC, state and local COVID-19 protocols will be followed.

“We are fortunate to be able to bring Dr. Klasing to Huntsville,” said Teresa Houser, administrator of Unity Psychiatric Care. “His experience diagnosing and treating seniors and other adults will increase access to high-quality mental health care in this community.”

As medical director, Klasing will be providing direct care for hospital patients, as well as leadership for a multidisciplinary team including psychiatric nurse practitioners.

Klasing has a degree in engineering and is a Navy veteran.

For inpatient referrals, call 256-964-6700; for outpatient referrals, call 256-964-6722.

Unity Psychiatric Care is a division of Franklin, Tenn.-based American Health Partners.

In Historic Move, Drake State President Named to State Port Authority Board

MONTGOMERY – Dr. Patricia Sims, president of Drake State Community & Technical College, has been appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to the Alabama State Port Authority Board of Directors.

Drake State President Dr. Patricia Sims (Drake State Photo)

She is the first African-American woman to be appointed to the Port Authority Board. Sims will represent the Northern District, succeeding Al Stanley, whose term expired July 31.

“… It’s an honor to have received this appointment and I intend to execute my role with commitment and integrity,” said Sims. “The Port Authority is an anchor to Alabama’s economy and I look forward to being able to contribute to its continued success.”

Established by the Legislature in 2000, the nine-member Port Authority board holds fiscal and policy oversight for the public seaport. The Port Authority owns and operates Alabama’s deep-water port facilities at the Port of Mobile, one of the nation’s largest seaports.

“I’ve appointed individuals that have consistently demonstrated the necessary knowledge and leadership skills critical to economic expansion in Alabama,” said Ivey. “The success of our port is fundamental to Alabama businesses and jobs …”

The authority’s container, general cargo and bulk facilities handle more than 26 million tons of cargo annual and have immediate access to two interstate systems, five Class 1 railroads, and nearly 15,000 miles of inland waterways.

The cargo and vessel activity associated with the Port Authority employs more than 150,400 Alabamians and generates some $25.4 billion in economic value for the state.

Sitdown with Success: Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf

(Sitdown with Success is a regular feature of the Huntsville Business Journal on entrepreneurs and their keys to success. This month’s subject is Bruce Weddendorf who helped revolutionize the craft-brewing industry in Huntsville and the state.)

Just four short weeks before COVID- 19 became everyone’s daily reality, Huntsville City Mayor Tommy Battle proclaimed Feb. 14 as Straight to Ale Day.

Bruce Weddendorf stands in the Straight to Ale stockroom, a converted gym at the former Stone Middle School. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The Valentine’s Day proclamation came on the heels of a recent accolade from RateBeer, naming the Huntsville brewery the “2019 Best Brewer in Alabama.” And what an honor it was: Five times in six years, Straight to Ale has earned the title.

Going far beyond its local and state popularity, Straight to Ale has become a nationally recognized product, as well as a hang out. The taproom is a prime destination location for out-of-town visitors.

It’s that kind of comfy place where old friends gather over a pint, business folk network and new connections are forged.

Getting its start in 2009, Straight to Ale has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the small, 500-square-foot production facility at Lincoln Mill.

In spring 2011, Straight To Ale took up residence in the former Olde Towne Brewery on Leeman Ferry Road. Still operating as a production venture, the passing of the Brewery Modernization Act in fall 2011 that included taprooms, was a business model game-changer.

Once the taproom was added, operations expanded to host a wide assortment of special events. Every night was a party of some sort and, by 2014, Straight to Ale was bursting at the seams.

School’s out forever! By summer 2016, Straight to Ale became the anchor tenant at Campus No. 805, formerly  Stone Middle School, which was a part of the West Huntsville redevelopment initiative.

In its spacious, 45,000-square-foot facility, Straight to Ale has plenty to offer. There’s the taproom with more than 20 taps of Straight To Ale brews. The beer names are uniquely memorable, such as “Monkeynaut,” and “Unobtainium.” STA Operations Manager Matt Broadhurst creates the quirky label art that’s poster worthy and unforgettable.

Having a reception, business meeting or a party? There are five special event rental spaces. There’s also a small retail shop that sells STA merchandise.

For dining, there’s Ale’s Kitchen, serving up items from a variety of cultures, all made from scratch.

Bruce Weddendorf, his wife Jo, and business partners Dan Perry and Colin Austin were the trailblazers on this first wave of local craft beer; frontrunners with the taproom concept.

The idea behind Straight to Ale was to make Huntsville more fun! “We wanted to provide a product that was uniquely Huntsville,” said Weddendorf. “To get people -all kinds of people- together over beer.”

Before 2009, there wasn’t a craft beer segment to the beer market. Free the Hops paved the way by helping to pass the Gourmet Beer Bill. That was the first industry game-changer. When they helped to pass the taproom laws two years later, it completely changed Straight to Ale’s business model.

“The thing is, we really didn’t know what it would do, we didn’t understand at the time how big a part of our lives it was going to become because we were still very much a manufacturing business,” said Weddendorf. “It (the taproom) made it so much better, so much easier to reach customers and to make bonds with those customers.”

Since 2011, Alabama has gone from seven craft breweries to 45 in 2019. The passing of the Gourmet Beer Bill and Taproom law had the one-two punch effect of creating a new industry and adapting the brewery business model from strictly production to a business that encompassed hospitality and retail, too.

Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf is climbing the ladder to success in the craft beer industry. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“We grew from being just manufacturing-oriented to becoming part of the hospitality industry,” said Weddendorf. “That wasn’t something we planned, but it’s been tremendously beneficial to our business and beneficial to Huntsville.”

There remains to be challenges; but challenges are something that Weddendorf sees as something to go over, go under, go around, or break the walls down. Until the recent pandemic, home alcohol delivery wasn’t an issue nor was it on the radar.

“It was something that we hadn’t noticed until COVID-19,” said Weddendorf.

Despite the current business climate and the obstacles associated with COVID 19, Straight to Ale recently completed a merger with the Tuscaloosa-based Druid City Brewing. The idea was to help Druid City bring their great beers statewide to and to expand their fun, yet tiny taproom and brewery.

And it’s been a win-win.

“This has been a great relationship and it benefited everyone,” said Weddendorf. “We are very glad that we were fortunate enough to be able to make this deal.”

Straight to Ale provides the place and the experience where people can come to relax.

“It’s all kinds of people and everyone has the beer in common; the beer and the desire to be with other people,” said Weddendorf. “It’s amazing to touch the friendships, the business relationships, and all kinds of important connections and networking that come out of this place. And that is very satisfying to see; that type of success where we’re really influencing a lot of people’s lives, we’re making their lives better.

“We’re giving them somewhere to connect with other people and it’s beneficial to the community, so I’m really proud of that.”

 

Madison Mayor Finley: Events to Fill Baseball Void at Toyota Field – When Allowed

It might not be Rocket City Trash Pandas baseball, but Toyota Field might soon be hosting events.

That’s according to Madison Mayor Paul Finley, who at Wednesday’s COVID-19 press briefing said, as soon as it’s allowed, plans are to open the new stadium to an array of events.

The Trash Pandas were scheduled to open their first season in Double-A on April 15 before the novel coronavirus intervened. There has been no decision regarding the start or cancelation of the Minor or Major League Baseball seasons.

“Regardless of whether baseball happens, or doesn’t happen, we’re getting ready to start doing a lot of really positive things,’’ Finley said. “A lot of people will be able to come to that venue and use it whether its camps for kids for baseball, whether it’s a wine and cheese festival, whether it’s movies in the park — we’re going to start having events there and doing it in a way that makes good sense when it comes to distancing and sanitation and so forth.’’

Finley also pointed out this is National EMS Week and said for those on the frontlines “we’re very appreciative of what they do.’’

On another note, he said masks would be available for anyone without one who attends graduation ceremonies for James Clemens and Bob Jones at Madison City Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Huntsville plans to hold graduations June 25-26 at the Von Braun Center’s Propst Arena. Madison County schools have set graduations for July 15-16.

Masks will be required at all ceremonies and distancing will be in practice.

As of late Wednesday, there were 13,052 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and 285 in Madison County. There were 522 deaths in Alabama related to the disease and four in the county.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said there were less than 10 patients in local hospitals being treated for the virus.

“We are remaining vigilant,’’ she said. “We’re watching the numbers as the community reopens.’’

Hudson continued to stress social distancing, hand washing, and cleaning heavily used surfaces.

She also said that while stay-at-home orders were in place most people were around 1 to 5 people in a household. Now that people are returning to work, that core group is more like 20 people. That 20, she pointed out, would average around three people in the household so now each worker is exposed to a possible 60 contacts.

“The more we open it the more germs can come our way,’’ she said, “which is why we focus on six feet apart.’’

Hudson also emphasized that all health care facilities are open and urged anyone who is not well to visit the emergency room.

“Don’t stay home if you’re sick,’’ she said. “Don’t delay essential care.’’

 

Speaking from Experience, Astronaut Hoot Gibson on Living Through Quarantines and Confined Spaces

Up until now, he was one of only a handful of people on Earth who knows what it feels like to go through self-quarantine, and live with other people in a small, confined space for more than five weeks.

Retired NASA astronaut and Navy pilot Robert “Hoot” Gibson was a bit puckish with his opening advice to the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce on a teleconference this week.

“Hoot” Gibson experienced quarantine and cramped quarters while flying on five space shuttle missions. (Photo courtesy UAH)

“Well, we had a big advantage once we got into orbit,” he said. “We were flying at zero gravity or weightlessness so when the floor got cluttered, we just floated to the upper deck. When your floor at home gets cluttered with too many people and their stuff, just fly over the top … okay, okay, that is not meant to be serious,” he said to laughter.

A resident of Murfreesboro, Tenn., and still a familiar face at Space Camp graduations, Gibson is no stranger to living in close quarters. He flew five space shuttle missions and spent 36 days with up to seven astronauts in the tight quarters of the shuttle.

Vice President of Communications for the Chamber Claire Aiello asked him about his experiences then and now as people find themselves confined to home for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We really did have an advantage in that a crew is formed months before launch and we trained together for a year, knew each other very well by the time we actually went into space, we knew exactly what we were going to face, and we had experience with the tight confines of the space shuttle,” he said.

“On three of my five missions, we had 8 feet by 15 feet on the upper deck, and on the lower deck, we had about 15 feet by 15 feet. Two of my missions, we did not have the Spacelab, which gave us double that much room, about 5,000 square feet, so comparatively speaking, we had a lot of room.

“But if I think back on it, the mission where I would say, ‘How in the world did we not strangle each other?’, that was my second mission. There were seven of us aboard and we only had the flight deck and the mid-deck, 2,500 square feet for all of us to live in.”

He said being in space was easier that preparing for it in the simulator because they couldn’t fly and couldn’t use the ceiling.

“Knowing and expecting that you’re going to be hampered in your mobility around people is probably one of the biggest parts of it,” Gibson said. “You realize and understand you’re going to be all over each other, so I guess training and experience are things that always carry the day.”

He said containing the coronavirus has been a challenge for most because few people have ever been quarantined at all and in the case of COVID-19, there was little time to prepare before they were asked to self-quarantine with no previous knowledge or experience doing it.

“Again, as a crew we had the advantage of going into quarantine seven days before we launched,” Gibson said. “That kept us away from anyone who could give us the flu or any kind of disease. And anyone who came within 15 feet of one us, would have had to have passed a physical by one of our NASA flight surgeons.”

He said he never flew a mission where anyone had a cold or flu outbreak, or any illness at all.

“And then there is your own personal attitude toward it,” said Gibson. “We never had a crew member who was grumpy or difficult to work with, or who said, ‘I need all these people out of my hair’, you know. We never heard anything like that, so I think attitude is probably the biggest part.”

He said a thankful attitude helps too, in which they are going into quarantine because that’s what it will take to protect them and the people with whom they come into contact.

“We have all been self-quarantining everywhere, trying to stay six feet apart and I think it has for the most part worked,” Gibson said.

The lessons of aerospace he said are training, simulation, preparation, having a plan, and executing the plan.

“We had a saying in flight-testing: plan the flight and fly the plan and don’t deviate,” Gibson said. “I say the more rigorous we are, the more adherence to the plan we can do, and the better off we are going to be. It has paid off (so far) and it works.

Gibson in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle Discovery. (NASA Photo)

“Things that work are good. That is the attitude to take toward it.”

Gibson said his family and neighbors have obeyed the stay at home orders, but they are getting a little more ambitious. A doctor in the neighborhood suggested bringing their own folding chairs and having 5 o’clock Happy Hour – six feet apart. Gibson has even hosted one himself.

“Cautious optimism is where I’m headed in the days ahead,” he said. “But another thing we have been sure to do is order food from local restaurants to help keep them in business. Panera Bread delivers and there are others where you drive there and pick it up.

“One restaurant we go to said to us, ‘Thank goodness for the people in Murfreesboro!’ He initially laid-off all of his employees, but because of the support he is getting from people here in town, he’s hired back five of them, so I think we can all help.”

Responding to a question about 5:00 Happy Hour in the cul-de-sac compared to 5:00 in the cockpit of a spacecraft, Gibson quips, “We weren’t supposed to have cocktails in orbit and of course I never did – unless you count that thing with the Russians … but that’s a whole other story!”

Speaking of Russians … he was asked whether it was true that he helped end the Cold War.

“When we docked with the Russian Space station Mir, it was 1995 and only the second international docking, 20 years after the Apollo Soyuz docking in 1975,” said Gibson. “When we arrived, the protocol was that I would shake hands with the Mir commander. I was the Space Shuttle commander, and so the plan was the two of us would shake hands in the hatch,

“I opened the hatch and shook hands with Russian Air Force Col. Vladimir Dezhurov. He had been a Russian fighter pilot training to shoot down and kill me all those years I was trained to shoot down and kill him. That day, President Bill Clinton made the comment, ‘Well I guess this means the Cold War is over.’

“I tell everyone I ended the Cold War – it’s a little bit of a joke!”

Chamber President Chip Cherry asked about a picture on Gibson’s desk of an F-4 Phantom II fighter jet.

“What was your favorite plane to fly?” asked Cherry.

Gibson gives a ‘thumbs up’ in the Tomcat. (NASA Photo)

“Initially, I flew the F-4 in Vietnam, and flew two cruises over the Coral Sea in it. After the Phantom, I flew the first F-14 Tomcat and of course that’s the airplane that was in the movie ‘Top Gun,’” Gibson said. “It could do everything the Phantom could do and, at the time, the Phantom was the world’s best all-around fighter plane.

“When the Tomcat came out, it could do everything the Phantom could do 15 to 20 percent better, so it was a superior airplane and it should have been. It had 15 years of evolution over the Phantom.

“Both were a lot of fun. Flying jet fighters was really something!”

No one on the call could resist asking – where did he get his call sign “Hoot” Gibson?

“I joined a squadron aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in 1972,” he said. “I was a new guy and the operations officer looked at me and said, “Hey kid. You got a nickname?’

“My real name is Robert, so I said, ‘Yes sir, it’s Bob.’

“He said, ‘No, no, no, come on. You need a real nickname.’

“I said, ‘Well, occasionally I’ve been called Hoot after the rodeo champion and silent movie star cowboy.’

Gibson in his NASA T-38 aircraft. (UAH Photo)

“From that moment on, April 1972, I’ve been ‘Hoot’ Gibson. It went on the canopy of my airplane, on my coffee cup, and Hoot Gibson was sewn onto my flight suit.”

On April 17, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan, and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka returned to Earth after nearly a year on the International Space Station. They returned to an Earth where people are wearing masks and where they have been living in a sort of quarantine.

What does Hoot Gibson think it is like for them?

“I’m sure Mission Control has told them all about what’s going on, and what life is like back here on Earth,” Gibson said. “I suspect they’re going to be a bit dismayed because they’re not going to be quite prepared for what they’re going to see because it’s far more dramatic than it comes across to you by someone explaining it to you.

“When you come back from space, it’s always such a joyous celebration with everybody enthusiastically hugging everybody and shaking hands. They’re not going to get any of that, so it’s going to be a little bit of a letdown I’m sure after the experience of flying in space, which is pretty spectacular.”