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Always going forward, not back

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By Ron Benningfield

Like most working people, A.G. Back can be found in his office almost every weekday.

Unlike most, however, the Lincoln National Bank’s Chairman Emeritus recently celebrated his 95th birthday.

In those nine and one-half decades, the son of a dentist from Drakesboro, Kentucky, has garnered a lifetime of memorable experiences including playing for Adolph Rupp’s UK basketball squad, graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, serving as a carrier fighter pilot, and serving as a bank president and chairman of the board. Along the way he has crossed paths with many notable individuals.

“I’ve been blessed,” said Back, seated in his office chair at the bank’s main office on the square in Hodgenville.

His family moved from Drakesboro to Hodgenville when he was in elementary school.  Under the tutelage of Frank Camp and Peck Hickman, who were later to become University of Louisville coaching legends, Back played single-wing tailback in football and guard in high school basketball where he made SKAC all-conference for the Hodgenville Eagles.

After high school, he attended the University of Kentucky on a partial scholarship, playing for legendary coaches Adolph Rupp and Paul S. McBrayer.

“I was a six-foot and a half-inch guard,” he recalled.  “I remember Coach Rupp saying whenever he saw me, ‘Boy, when are you going to grow?’” 

He said McBrayer, who was an assistant coach to Rupp, helped him more than anyone else at school to become a better player, getting him to use his left hand as well as his right in shooting.

“He worked my butt off, but I thought the world of him,” he said.

In 1942, he was a member of the Wildcat squad that finished third in the NCAA basketball tournament. Kentucky beat Illinois 46-44 before losing to Dartmouth 47-28 in the semi-finals. Stanford won the national title with a 53–38 victory in the final game over Dartmouth.

Fighter Pilot

Back was enrolled in the Army ROTC program at UK when E.W. Creal, owner and publisher of the LaRue County Herald News and a U.S. Congressman, nominated him to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1942.

At Annapolis he was a multi-sport athlete. In 1945, he was a member of the Army lacrosse team that tied arch rival Navy in the finals to claim a national co-championship.

He was named an All-American basketball team member in 1945 and was inducted into the Navy Basketball Hall of Fame in 1946.

Graduating from the Naval Academy in 1946, he served until 1953 as a naval carrier fighter pilot.

“I made 419 carrier landings in a Corsair(propeller fighter),” he said, adding that landing on a moving ship was sometimes described as a “controlled crash.”

Back said landing the plane required the pilot to drag it in with gear down, flaps down, tailhook down to catch one of several cables hung across the flight deck.

“You actually stalled it,” he shared. “You had to get that tail down to catch the wire and if you missed the wire, you ran into a steel barrier that caused a very sudden stop and ruined the engine.”

Pilots depended on carefully watching a landing signal officer as he used flags to guide the plane to the deck, giving a wave-off if the plane wasn’t in perfect position for landing.

Recalling what a training instructor had told him during his basic flight training in Pensacola, Back recounted, “There’s two kinds of carrier pilots—them that’s been in the drink and them that’s going to be in the drink.”

He was assigned to Fighter Squadron 41 and became friends with two other squadron pilots, former naval academy classmates of his, who later would become famous astronauts—Alan Shephard and Walter “Wally” Schirra.

He spent a lot of his flying hours stationed aboard the USS Midway, a carrier with a flight deck over three football fields long, 18 decks high(equivalent of a 20-story building), with a crew of over 4,000 officers and enlisted men, and a complement of over 100 airplanes.

“I’m a Plank Owner on the USS Midway,” he said, explaining that the designation, “Plank Owner” was given to those in the original complement of planes when a ship was placed in commission.

Back served aboard the Midway on Operation Frostbite in 1946, plus cruises in the Mediterranean Sea and off South America.

Flying was perilous whether pilots were involved in combat or not.

“Every time we went to the Mediterranean on five-and-one-half-month tours, we averaged one of our pilots getting killed. It’s going to happen because flying is a dangerous business.”

Businessman

Though he loved flying and being a Navy pilot, he resigned his commission as a Lieutenant Senior Grade at the end of the Korean War in 1952 to return to civilian life to help his father-in-law Donahue Ferrill with his Hodgenville auto business.

“His health had gone bad,” Back explained. After Ferrill died, Back became the Chevrolet dealer, a position he held several years.

“Mr. Ferrill put me on the bank board in 1964,” he recalled. “I stayed on the board and came full time at the bank in 1982, serving as chairman of the board.”

When Wathen Claycomb retired in 1985, Back took over as bank president. He served as board chairman, bank president, and chief executive officer of the bank until 1995.

“I’ve retired three times, now,” he said, smiling. “I think I’m called now the Chairman Emeritus in an advisory capacity.”

Why He Works

Back said two reasons for his longevity and his ability to continue working are that he does things in moderation and believes in the benefits of exercise.

“I go with the philosophy, ‘Use it or lose it,” he offered. “I exercise moderately and also exercise the brain, reading a lot, keeping up with certain things. I’m an avid newspaper reader; I watch the news mainly to keep the mind working.”

He explained that he remains at the bank because it continues to be what it started out being, “An old style community bank that provides a personal touch.”

“People still like a personal touch in banking and we’ve tried to maintain that mutual trust with people,” he said. “People will stick with you if you treat them right.”