Willy Culberson Tackles a New Mission: Farm Livin’

TCDRS retiree Willy Culberson said goodbye to the city and is enjoying farm livin' during retirement.

Story and photos by Kelly Lindner

If you were to visit Culberson Cattle Company, in Smithville, Texas, TCDRS retiree Willy Culberson would greet you, probably in an ATV and probably holding a “World’s Best Grandpa” coffee mug.

Then he’d show you his property, 20 acres filled with tractors, grass planters, 14 cows, a few calves, two horses (Blaze and Phantom), two barn cats (Black Cat and Shaq), one German Shepard (Diggy) and one bull (Leo).

On the tour, the bull would probably walk right up to Willy and stand next to him, calmly awaiting instruction. The cows would gather expectantly, wanting food, and the barn cats would either hide (Black Cat) or meow loud opinions (Shaq) for attention.

“I was actually on a tractor about to start it up when I heard this little noise and looked down to find Black Cat as a kitten,” Willy says. “He’s been with me ever since.”

Goodbye, City Life

Willy retired in 2017, after a nearly 50-year career in aviation. In particular, he spent 21 years flying for STAR (Shock Trauma Air Rescue) Flight, Travis County’s helicopter medevac and rescue service.

Willy’s love for flying started as a child. He’d watch the planes from Bergstrom Air Force Base fly over his father’s farm in Bastrop County and vow to start flying as soon as he could. He made good on that promise at age 18 when he started flying for the U.S. Army in 1968.

“I went from high school to flight school,” Willy laughs.

Willy learned to fly helicopters from the Army’s flight school and pilot planes from San Jacinto College. He went on to earn commercial helicopter, single-engine and multi-engine airplane licenses. He’s also a Certified Flight Instructor, which means he can teach others to fly. His last military assignment was training astronauts to fly Black Hawk helicopters.

After serving in the Army for 27 years, Willy retired from service in 1996. He started that same year with STAR Flight as a line pilot. Later, he was promoted to chief pilot and then spent 16 years as the director of aviation operations.

During his time with STAR Flight, Willy flew for many rescues, but says one really stands out. In November 2016, the Onion Creek area in Austin, Texas, experienced sudden, severe flash flooding that caused several people to have to abandon their vehicles.

“This particular gentleman found the tallest tree and climbed to the very top, so he was in the perfect position,” Willy says. After one of Willy’s colleagues rescued the man from the tree and got him inside the helicopter, Willy landed on the feeder road along Highway 130.

“His family was waiting for him — wife and two kids,” Willy says. “That’s my favorite story for the day, because I got to see the end result.”

In 2017, things started to line-up for Willy’s retirement in an unexpected way, like finding the house Willy lives in now, with all of its acreage, only two miles from his childhood home. “I knew I was ready to retire because all of my long-term goals were lining up. I was ready to move back home to the area I grew up in. It just seemed to be the right time and all of the right circumstances.”

Not that Willy doesn’t miss working life. “I miss the satisfaction of helping those who are having a very bad day, and I miss working with the fantastic people and flying helicopters doing rescue work — administrators, nurses, paramedics, other pilots who fly with me, and my supervisors, and all the way up to the members of the commissioners court,” he says.

Farm Livin’

Today, when Willy isn’t running the small ranching operation out of his home, he spends time with his family: his wife, Carla, two children, one grandson and “many, many nieces and nephews,” he says. He also compares keeping his two horses to “having kids all over again.”

Willy spends a lot of time volunteering for his community, serving on the boards of the Smithville Food Pantry, the Smithville Community Clinic and Bastrop County Cares. “I was born and raised in Smithville, and went to Smithville High School,” Willy says. “I’m happy I got to come back and reconnect with my community.”

He also has a socially distanced retiree meet-up every Thursday morning. “We eat breakfast, drink coffee and solve all of the world’s problems,” Willy laughs.

To learn more about his retirement benefit, Willy follows TCDRS on Facebook and reads TCDRS.org. “TCDRS has been very good about keeping everybody informed about what’s going on,” Willy says.

He’s also pleased with the dual-life retire¬ment benefit option he selected. “It’s great to have something where you can retire, select a benefit and still provide an income for your spouse if something were to happen,” Willy says. “It gives a really good sense of security. That’s one of the great features of the retirement system.”


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