FEMA center celebrates 50 years of operation

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Bj Lewis/DRC
Barbara Utter-Tomes and Welcome Wilson chat after the ceremony honoring 50 years of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region 6 center in Denton.

The underground room was packed and warm, but people gathered for a 50-year celebration did not seem to mind.

Past regional directors, former employees, retirees, current employees and officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region 6 marked the establishment of the Federal Region Center in Denton in 1964.

What began as a small number of employees in a building on the campus of Texas Woman’s University, grew into a massive site that has been the central hub for the U.S. response to disasters, both natural and man-made.

Jerry D. Stevens, regional director from 1982 to 1986, lauded FEMA officials for planning and conducting the celebration of the Region 6 center on Friday.

“We all have a love affair with FEMA and its mission,” Stevens told the packed crowd in a lower-level room 58 feet underground. “I don’t know of another agency that has so much impact on people when they are in a serious situation, whether it be homes, business or wherever as FEMA.”

During his tenure, Stevens said he worked with a dean from the University of North Texas, which was then North Texas State University, on establishing a four-year degree plan for emergency management.

Alongside Stevens were former directors Edward Hargett, Buddy Young and Ron Castleman, who each remarked about their time leading Region 6 and its positive effect on them.

Also speaking was state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, and Barbara Utter Tomes, the daughter of Bill Utter, a pillar of the Denton business community and one of the driving forces behind getting the regional center built in the city.

Tomes, who was 3 years old at the time, said that while she didn’t remember firsthand all the effort her father was making to get the center built in Denton, she had pieced together his involvement over the years.

She recounted some facts about that involvement to attendees. Tomes elicited a collective “ahh” from the crowd when she said she has a telegram her father received from Lyndon B. Johnson and a few other officials who confirmed funding for the center would come through.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess recalled being a teenager at the time the facility was being built and how people would come to see the giant hole on Loop 288 being dug and the facility built.

“Ten years before the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, this facility put Denton on the map,” he said.

Burgess thanked the officials and staff for their service. He said it felt like a family reunion, though he felt like somewhat of an outsider attending the event with so many people who have ties with and fond memories of the FEMA facility.

One of the other contributors in the Region 6 FEMA family was Houston real estate agent Welcome Wilson, who served as a regional director many years ago.

“It was a tense time. An interesting time,” Wilson said.

He recalled some of the steps taken to acquire the permission and the money to build the facility.

Bill Campbell and his wife were among the guests at the ceremony. Campbell began work in 1963 and continued until the mid 1990s.

Campbell said he came with his family in 1963 and worked for one year in Breckenridge Hall, one of the dormitories at TWU when the regional office was on campus.

“It’s a humbling experience to come see this facility and the people who are here,” Campbell said. “I have such a very high regard for what they are doing and how they are responding and how they are serving the people.”

BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875 and via Twitter at @BjlewisDRC.


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