CLOVER — Louis Csencsits has worn the U.S. Air Force uniform for 45 years, from the aftermath of the Tet offensive in 1968 Vietnam to his Clover High School junior ROTC classroom.
In his early part of his 26-year Air Force career, as a weather observer stationed outside Saigon, he gathered and plotted data for forecasters who needed to predict flying conditions in a war zone.
But for the last 19 years, Csencsits has taken on what some might see as a more complex and sometimes even more daunting role: Molding teenagers into good citizens in the Clover High School Air Force junior ROTC program.
Chief Master Sgt. (Ret.) Csencsits, described by one of his former students as a sometimes “grumpy cat” who nevertheless “loves group hugs,” says it has been the best job ever.
“Students are the most enjoyable, and at the same time the most frustrating,” said Csencsits, 66. But even the best jobs end, and Csencsits says it’s time for him to leave.
He will retire at the end of the current school year, leaving the junior ROTC program he opened at Clover High School 19 years ago with its former leader, Lt. Col. Robert Dowd, in the hands of its current officer, Maj. Brian Batson.
Batson, in his third year in charge of the Clover program, said the students’ connection to Csencsits is evidenced in the fact that many come back to visit him.
“He’s tough, but he’s fair,” Batson said. “Obviously the kids think a lot of him. At the time, they may not, but when you look in the rear-view mirror, they do.
“Kids come to see him all the time,” Batson said. “There’s a parade of kids in here, and they don’t come to see me. They come to see him.”
‘He always listened’
In his 19 years, Batson said, Csencsits has overseen the training of about 3,000 cadets, and seen the program’s enrollment grow from about 100 cadets per year at the beginning to around 250 this year.
John Moss, a Clover grad and former junior ROTC cadet who went on to graduate from The Citadel, shared his memories of Csencsits for a farewell video.
“He demanded excellence among his students. While I was a cadet there, I only knew I did not want to be on his radar for failure to accomplish a task,” Moss wrote.
Cassie Bell, another Clover grad, found a mentor in Csencsits during her years in junior ROTC.
“He touched my life in many ways, and was always there to talk us through our problems,” Bell wrote. “There were countless times I was in his office crying about life and he always listened.”
Wesley Smith, another former student, recalled an incident that illustrates Csencsits’ commitment to his role an an example for students.
Smith recalled that the class was doing physical training, but he said less than half the class was doing the exercises.
Csencsits “stepped in to show everyone how it’s done,” Smith wrote.
Smith said Csencsits “assumed the push-up position and stated aloud that everyone would get into that position and stay there until he said up or remain in that position.”
Smith said no one was able to hold the position “without shaking or periodically placing a knee to the floor. I looked up at Chief, and he was holding the same position as all of us, perfectly level, with a big smile on his face.”
Setting an example
Csencsits said he often did physical training and ran with the cadets until he experienced some hip troubles that began about a year ago, and which resulted in a hip replacement surgery in March.
“You’ve got to set an example for the students, and that’s a big thing,” said Csencsits, an avid tennis player who sports a fit, lean physique.
Csencsits said many people think the junior ROTC program aims to recruit students to the military. But he said its real aim is to build good citizens.
He said students do learn military customs such as how to wear a uniform correctly, follow grooming standards and how to march and drill.
However, he said, they also learn valuable life skills like creating and balancing a budget, health and wellness information, first aid, career paths and choices and common expectations in the work force.
Older students study communication and leadership techniques and practice poise and the art of thinking on their feet.
They also learn about aerospace science, weather forecasting and the history of flight. Fourth-year students lead the program and manage younger cadets.
In addition to working with Batson to train the Clover cadets, Csencsits also coaches and trains the program’s drill team, which has earned numerous competition trophies during his tenure.
Several glass cases filled with awards in the hall outside the junior ROTC classroom stand as testimony to the team’s success.
Csencsits also took the students on some community service outings, including a trip to Camp Golden Valley, a Girl Scout camp in Bostic, N.C.
After the cadets cleared trails, painted or did other service at the camp, Csencsits would make a fire and grill burgers.
During one trip, he learned that one of the cadets had never struck a match or made a charcoal fire to grill food. The cadet learned those lessons during the trip, he said.
Saigon to Clover
Csencsits, who grew up in Clifton, N.J., was just 17 when he enlisted in the Air Force in November 1965. He wanted to join the Marines, but he said his mother threw out a Marine recruiter who visited their home to talk to the family.
At that time, Csencsits said, “if you didn’t enlist, you were going to be drafted.” So his parents agreed to let him join the Air Force.
He scored well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and was told he would be assigned to the Air Force weather service.
“I said OK,” said Csencsits, who noted that new military recruits at that time didn’t enjoy the choices that they have today.
After basic training, weather training and an initial stint at Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, Csencsits was reassigned in August 1968 for a year to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam, just outside Saigon.
It was six months after the Tet offensive of January and February 1968, Csencsits said, and he worked in a weather central station with top secret security clearance.
“Being in Vietnam still wasn’t a fun place to be,” he said. “But compared to the Army and the Marines in the field, I would say I had it plush.”
When he returned to the United States, he worked at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, assisting with weather support for space missions until late 1970. He later became a weather instructor and weather station manager at Finthen Army Airfield in Germany.
He also held positions as inspector general, evaluating the performance of weather stations in and outside the continental U.S., and weather operations manager at bases in California and Illinois.
He retired in March 1992, when a planned Air Force restructuring would have reassigned him to the Pentagon. “I had no desire to go to work at the Pentagon,” he said.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in business that year, and worked as an operations manager for Circuit City in Spartanburg for two years before he signed on to help launch the Clover junior ROTC program.
Batson noted that Csencsits’ rank as chief master sergeant is the highest possible level for an enlisted person, one achieved by only the top 1 percent of recruits.
“It’s a big deal to be a chief,” Batson said of Csencsits’ rank. “Of 100 kids in basic training, only one makes it that far.”
Batson also said few people serve the military for as long as Csencsits has. “It’s a long time to wear a uniform, and it’s something I know he’s very proud of,” Batson said.
Csencsits, who has three sons and two grandchildren with his wife, Susan, said he plans to play a good bit more tennis in retirement. He recently resumed playing after his hip surgery.
He also enjoys woodworking, fishing, video editing and gardening, among other interests.
But as Csencsits thumbed through a Clover High yearbook, smiling as he paused over farewell messages inked by students who shared their thanks before moving on with life, it seemed clear that he will miss the joy and frustration of his students.
“I think working here has definitely helped keep me young,” Csencsits said simply. “It’s been fun.”
Jennifer Becknell • 803-329-4077