Peoria airport named in honor of four-star general

Dave Haney

Kathy Downing believed her husband, the late four-star Gen. Wayne A. Downing, was in Valhalla - the great hall where dead heroes go in Norse mythology - looking down smiling and laughing on Friday.

"He would have been humbled, he would have said he doesn't deserve it, but he would have been proud," Downing said after a dedication that officially renamed central Illinois' busiest airport in the Peoria native's honor. The airport now is known as Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport.

Some 400 people - local mayors, state representatives, business leaders, family members of Downing and friends, including Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot - turned out for the event that also marked the ceremonial groundbreaking for a new, $65 million terminal project.

"Patriot. Guardian of our freedom. Hero. Fearless. Modest. Humble and a man of absolute integrity," Perot said, describing Downing. "A great leader who always builds people up, never puts them down; he's kind and gentle but tougher than steel; he's always helping others, always puts others first and himself last ..."

Perot, who called on Downing as a friend and whom he knew through his many military and business connections for some 30 years, said he came to Peoria to see that Downing was honored properly.

"Again and again when his men were in combat, he would call me around the clock with deep concern about the men who were seriously wounded - here's a general calling me about privates," Perot said. "I wish every big chairman of the board of corporations cared that much about the third-shift factory workers, but it was like each one was his son or daughter. He wanted to get the best possible care from the most talented doctors in the private sector. I'll never forget those calls."

Behind the podium, a handful of idle Caterpillar Inc. tractors sat on recently overturned soil just beyond the airport's current terminal.

"Today, we embark on a new era of development - a new name, a new look, a new brand and we're honoring an American hero," Airport Director Ken Spirito said. "Despite what's happening in the economy today, it's important for us to move forward with projects like these, to infuse the economy, to be ready and prepared for the opportunities to come in years later down the road, so it's important to make sure we preserve economic development in this community."

When complete, the new terminal will be capable of docking more commercial passenger airplanes, enhance security and expand space for vendors and offer improvements in baggage retrieval.

For business, the investment is big, said Heartland Partnership CEO Jim McConoughey. "It's our front door, it sets the tone for visitors ... and one of the top five issues companies look at for selecting a site to move to or expand their business."

U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, said the current terminal, originally built in the 1950s, is overdue for replacement. "I've been through this piece of junk that we call an airport over here so many times. It is a piece of junk, it is falling down. Thank god we're building a new terminal before somebody gets hurt over there."

Spirito said with the new facility they are hoping to bring in international charters.

What's more, the airport is on target to break an all-time passenger record this year. The previous record of 550,000 passengers was set in 1978. Post deregulation, the record was 543,619 passengers, set last year.

Of the nearly $65 million total cost to build the terminal, Spirito said about $47 million will be paid using tax-supported bonds, which he said will not cause tax rates to go up. The remaining money will be paid using passenger facility charge fees and federal grant money.

Dave Haney can be reached at 686-3181 or

Gen. Wayne Downing

- Born May 10, 1940, in Peoria.

- Graduated Spalding High School.

- Received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated from West Point in June 1962 with a Bachelor of Science degree. He later earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Tulane University.

- Served in Vietnam from 1964-67.

- In 1984, he was chosen to form and lead the 75th Ranger Regiment; Downing is considered to be the father of the modern Rangers.

- In 1989, he was appointed commanding general of Joint Special


- During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Downing commanded 1,200 U.S. Special Forces that halted Iraq's SCUD missile attacks and eased missile threats in the war zone.

- In 1993, he was appointed to the rank of four-star general.

- In 1996, he retired as the head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, where he was in charge of the special operations forces of each military service. That same year he led a task force to investigate the terrorist attack on part of a housing complex in the city of Khobar, Saudi Arabia, where foreign military, including U.S. Air Force personnel, were housed.

- In 1999, he became a member of the National Commission on Terrorism.

- In 2001, he served the White House as national director and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism.

- His military honors include: Defense Department of Distinguished Service Medal, Army Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Soldier's Medal, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Air Accomodation Medal and commander in the French Legion of Honor.

- Downing died July 18, 2007, of complications from bacterial meningitis after his immune system had been weakened by cancer.