Scott Air Force Base kicked off its centennial celebration Friday afternoon with Gov. Bruce Rauner declaring 2017 the "Year of Scott Air Base."
The signature event to celebrate the base's 100th anniversary will be a free air show and open house featuring the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds on June 10-11.
"This is a home of freedom," Rauner told a crowd of hundreds gathered in the ballroom of the base's event center.
Rauner said he loves visiting the base and would like to see it expand.
Scott has over 12,400 civilian and military employees and contributes an estimated $3.5 billion annually to the region's economy. It is the largest employer in Southwestern Illinois and the fourth largest employer in the St. Louis metro area.
The base was founded as Scott Field in 1917 as part of the U.S. Army's early aviation force. It became an Air Force base in 1947 when the U.S. Air Force was officially launched. The base is named after Army Cpl. Frank Scott, who was the first enlisted member of the U.S. military to die in an aircraft accident. In the 1920s and '30s, Scott was the home of the military's balloons and dirigibles.
Col. Laura Lenderman, commander of the 375 Air Mobility Wing based at Scott, thanked the service members at the base, state and local elected officials and the surrounding communities for keeping the base thriving.
"We would not have been able to do what we do for the past 100 years, or for the next 100 years, without all of your support," Lenderman told the crowd.
For Lenderman, celebrating Scott's 100th anniversary while leading the 375th Air Mobility Wing is an "incredible honor."
Her father was assigned to the base when she was young girl. Then, she just thought Scott Air Force Base was a fun place to grow up and wasn't even sure what her dad did.
"I remember hearing the planes at night," she said in an interview after Friday's ceremony. Today, she lives on the same street on the base as she did as a child.
As she grew older, she decided to join the Air Force and has since logged more than 3,000 flight hours in four types of aircraft.
Lenderman's wing at Scott Air Force Base has 31 mission partners, including U.S. Transportation Command, Army Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, Air Mobility Command, 18th Air Force, Defense Information Systems Agency-Global Operations Command and the Illinois Air National Guard 126 Air Refueling Wing.
As part of the kickoff ceremony Friday, the guests heard stories about people who have served at Scott Air Force Base.
Col. Matt Getty, the 375th operations support squadron commander, was the emcee for the centennial celebration and told the crowd about Airman Robert Hodge, who received radio training at Scott Air Force Base.
Hodge was the radio operator on a C-54 Skymaster in the 1950s when "he and his crew were forced to ditch the aircraft in the waters of the frigid Atlantic."
Getty said Hodge, who retired from the Air Force as a staff sergeant, was able to use the radio skills he learned at Scott to help "ensure the successful rescue of his entire crew."
Forty-five years later, Hodge escorted his daughter, Pamela Dorsey, at her chief induction ceremony at Scott.
Dorsey, who since has retired from the Air Force and now serves as the base's sexual assault prevention program manager, said she was "humbled" to see her late father honored during Friday's ceremony.
Getty thanked Dorsey for her service and for "carrying on your family legacy as an integral part of this installation."