A huge fan of Roswell’s walk/runs, Mike Walsh walks in the annual Alien Chase. A former Marine and recently retired air traffic controller, Walsh likes to amuse others, “to keep you entertained,” he’ll say. (Courtesy Photo)
“Despite appearances, I am not old enough to have been in Vietnam.” It’s a phrase he likes to tell people. Maybe this is because his white mustache matches curly white hair tucked neatly behind his ears and scrapes against the back of his shirt collar. Or maybe it’s because it makes people laugh. It’s safe to guess it’s the latter, even if the former is still true.
It’s probably also for this latter reason that, when his white beard grows out and Christmas draws near, he claims kids will start pointing to him and saying, “Look, mama! Santa!”
This is just how Mike Walsh tells it. And whether true or not, it earns him smiles and a couple chuckles and really that’s his whole goal.
Walsh’s mantra is to amuse, “to keep you entertained,” he’ll say.
But what does it mean to entertain? Some use it in regards to holding house parties; a sort of Gatsby gathering comes to mind. But entertaining could also mean to draw out smiles, laughter and enjoyment from surrounding people. For Walsh, entertaining is a combination of these two.
He is often found hosting get-togethers at his house with the help of his wife, Cathy. His magical beans, addicting chile con queso or his own tweaked version of M&M’s pasta are all recipes for which friends have begged.
The love of entertaining reaches a fulfillment every Friday morning when one of Walsh’s highlights occurs: he and Cathy host breakfast for “The Herd,” a group of Walsh’s friends who join him for a walk and breakfast on Friday simply gained the nickname one day, courtesy of Cathy. He said, “The Gang” was coming over, and Cathy amended it saying, “No, ‘The Herd’ is coming.”
But it doesn’t take a gathering for Walsh to achieve his entertaining goal. Anyone who knows him wouldn’t hesitate to laugh, simply at the recollection of his stories and jokes. Ironically, hearing a simple run-down of Walsh’s professional life, it sounds as if it would contradict his humorous nature.
In 1981, he started his eight years of service with the Marine Corps. Originally, he wanted to join the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but at the time it wasn’t hiring. On his way out of the FAA building, he saw a recruitment center.
“I needed a job,” he said simply.
He joined the Marine Corps and became an air traffic controller. For one year in the early 80s, he was a radar controller in Iwakuni, Japan.
“It’s a wonderful country,” Walsh exclaimed. “Wonderful people. I had a great time, but couldn’t wait to get home.”
With a 17-hour time zone difference, he was far from family and friends.
“I was on the other side of the world and it just felt wrong.”
After returning to the States and moving around a few more times, Walsh eventually joined the FAA in 1990, and in 1995, he landed in Roswell. He did end up spending two years away in Albuquerque — a fortunate move, for it was how he met Cathy — but, in 2002, he was back in Roswell and has stayed here ever since. After 31 years, he finally reached the magical day of retirement, a fact he never fails to remind every colleague.
But the ATC tower has not forgotten Walsh. He may be retired, but many memories – some pleasant, others maybe not so much – live on in his absence. Whether it’s one of his favorite jokes (everyone knows “ROAR,” right?) or the memory of a classic moment of embarrassment and way too much clarity when you first saw the picture affectionately named “Sandy Butt,” Walsh still makes people laugh, even when he isn’t physically around.
Despite his good-humored nature, however, Walsh did take his job very seriously. And for the most part, he really liked what he did. He liked the challenge of “keeping airplanes from hitting each other, keeping things moving and keeping people happy,” he said. With a laugh, he added that the pay and benefits weren’t anything to complain about either.
Even the worst part, training others, was still a positive and rewarding experience as he got to see younger staff take over new positions.
The only lowlight, he said, was the crashes. Although there were not that many that he recalls, airplane crashes did happen from time to time.
For the first time, his face grew entirely serious. His eyes glinted at the memory of a terrible tragedy he wished he hadn’t witnessed.
“Seeing people die is not a lot of fun,” he said solemnly.
But it is not in Walsh’s nature to stay down, and swinging back into a positive mood, he recalled that a highlight of his career was the space jump of Felix Baumgartner.
“The whole experience was phenomenal,” he recalled. “Cheering, tears — all of it. It was very emotional.”
Although it was a very satisfying career, he is glad it’s over.
So what does Walsh do with his time now? With most recent retirees, the answer is usually nothing. For Walsh, that’s not entirely the case.
Besides his brunches with “The Herd,” Walsh enjoys Monday mornings of golf, yoga on Wednesdays at Senior Circle and long walks on the beach. (That last one is infrequent, but he does plan on buying a house in Maui. He has already picked out a realtor and a house — now all he needs is to win that lottery.)
Regardless of what he is actually doing, the goal never changes. Everything comes back to entertaining: he tries to embarrass and tell “every groaner joke” that comes to mind.
“That reminds me of a joke,” he’ll say, all too often. It’s a phrase that usually had people leaving the ATC tower or rolling their eyes. But people still enjoy the jokes, even if they don’t want to admit it.
In the end, Walsh believes he can be described somewhat simply in two words.
“Professionally, I’m driven,” he said, after some extensive thought. “Socially, I’m fun-loving.”