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He has flown airplanes and jets all over the world, but he still calls Neligh "home."
"I am actually a resident of Arizona, but we have a house in Neligh. We call it our 'sanity home.' We love coming up there," said Dennis Maple, a retired Air Force colonel and former commercial pilot.
A 1969 graduate of Neligh-Oakdale, Maple said he has always had a special place in his heart for his hometown and wanted to give something back to the community.
In 2000, Maple came up with two ideas. The ideas took flight and are still going strong today.
"I learned a lot at the Neligh school, and with that, I was able to go to the Air Force Academy and fly around the world," he said. "I wanted a way to give back."
He established a scholarship for Neligh-Oakdale graduates in honor of his father who was in a car accident when Maple was 5 years old. The Forrest E. Maple Achievement Award is a $1,000 award given to recipients who have shown perseverance through life's challenges.
"I named it after my dad because of what he went through," he said. "I saw people getting money for college. I wanted to make one available for those who overcame adversity and still became a productive member of the community. You don't even have to go to college to receive the award. I just want to honor a student that my dad would have been proud of."
Maple's second idea to give something back was to start the "Adopt-A-Pilot" program at Neligh-Oakdale. A captain and check airman for Southwest Airlines at the time, he was able to bring the program to the 5th graders at his former school. Maple and his wife Sherri, also a former Southwest pilot, visit the classroom each year to not only educate students about being a pilot, but also about the importance of education and personal goal setting. They track their journeys on a map and conclude the program with a visit to the local airport. Although they are both retired now, the Maples continue to offer the Adopt-A-Pilot program in Neligh.
He's come full circle because fifth grade was when Maple first moved to Neligh. After he graduated from high school, he entered the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. In 1973, Maple graduated from the academy with a bachelor of science degree in engineering mechanics. He started off working in the Air Force Materials Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Maple served as an engineer in the system programming office for the lightweight fighter.
But he had dreams of becoming a pilot. In 1976, that dream became a reality as he attended undergrad pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. The following year, Maple went to F4 upgrade training at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Ariz. Six months later, he was stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah and went to fly in his first operational squadron. Maple was sent to Kunsan Air Force Base in South Korea in 1979 and was sent on "remotes." He said this means he was sent there without his family. Maple was married to his first wife and had one daughter, Shanda, before leaving for Korea. He was able to return for the birth of his second daughter, Kristy, in 1980.
Maple came back to Hill Air Force Base in 1980 and transitioned from the F4 to F16s. In 1984, he attended Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and, in 1985, completed his master's degree in management from Webster University. Maple was divorced in 1988, the same year he decided to separate from active duty and join the reserves. In 1989, he began flying commercially for Southwest Airlines. The next year, Maple moved to Glendale, Ariz. and flew for Southwest and the Air Force Reserves. He married Sherri in 1995, and moved to Cave Creek, Ariz. Maple retired as a full colonel from the Air Force Reserves in 2003 and retired from Southwest in 2015.
During his service, Maple said he was part of an Air Force squadron which was named the Outstanding Squadron and he won several bomb competition awards, but he is quick to point out that he was not a hero, just a pilot who loved flying.
"I was shot at, but not hit, no purple heart or anything," he said. "I guess I saved a few airplanes."
Maple may not consider himself heroic, but the 5th graders in his Adopt-A-Pilot programs and the numerous Neligh-Oakdale scholarship recipients are thankful for his help as their dreams take flight.