Gordon Ponsford has had his hands on history.
From the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to the personal Bible of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King used by President Barack Obama when he took the oath of office for his first term in 2009, Ponsford and his team of conservators have restored some of the most iconic items in America and around the world. And now, he’s brought his skills to Hobbs to restore a Vietnam-era Republic F-105 Thunder-chief fighter-bomber destined to go on display at the Hobbs Veterans Memorial, currently under construction on Jack Gomez Boulevard north of town.
This particular aircraft presented some challenges, Ponsford said. It had been used as a battlefield trainer, meaning it was intentionally shot then used to train mechanics in how to quickly repair battlefield damage, he said.
This wasn’t the first F-105 Ponsford and his team based in Atlanta, Ga., have restored — but it was definitely unique, given its history, he said.
“This one was the worst we’ve ever done,” Ponsford said. “It was just riddled with holes. It was closer to the scrap yard than it was to going to an exhibit.”
This latest restoration project started with research, just like all the projects he’s done. Ponsford strives for historical accuracy, to ensure everything from the colors in the camouflage paint scheme to the decals on the fuselage are correct. But where can a person find that kind of information 60 years later?
“Facebook,” Ponsford said. “There are F-105 groups on there. If I want to know anything about a F-105, I go to that group. If it’s a B-52, I go to that group.
“They all have their own groups,” he said. “And there’s always multiple experts in those groups who can direct you to your answers.”
The restoration was a little easier because the aircraft is destined for a static display, not flight, Ponsford said. That means urethane paint — still designed for durability, but not as expensive as aeronautic paints — and standard sheet aluminum will work, saving the city quite a bit of money.
“The only material you have to be accurate on is the color,” Ponsford said. “The focus is on the aesthetics.”
Ponsford first got interested in mechanical and restoration work as a boy, growing up in his home village of Mildenhall, Suffolk in the east of England. His father was American and his mother British and his grandfather owned body shops where Ponsford was first exposed to those trades.
“You could say I was working in the garage, but to me I was more playing in the garage,” he said. “But it gets in your blood. It’s been a passion of mine my whole life.
“But it’s funny, I’m one of the few conservators out there who doesn’t have a degree in conservation,” he said. “Though my bench knowledge I would say goes realistically about 46 years.”
Ponsford moved with his family to the United States when he was 12. He kept up with his interests in conservation and restoration, eventually going to work in commercial restoration. Soon, though, his interests turned more toward restoring historic buildings. He soon learned an important lesson, he said.
“I learned about patinas, the patination of metals,” Ponsford said. “But after a while you learn, whether it’s metal, wood or stone, the (restoration) process stays the same. Just the materials change. After you learn that you realize most things are easy to restore.”
He earned a name for himself in the Washington, D.C., area, working for 22 years as conservator for Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. He maintained everything from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers to the individual white headstones iconic of military cemeteries everywhere.
Ponsford eventually moved to Atlanta, Ga., where he continued his historic preservation work and started teaching preservation techniques to technicians with the National Park Service. Because the NPS is in charge of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, he was tapped to restore King’s personal Bible.
“I was super honored to restore that,” Ponsford said. “I think it’s the same with any artifact you hold — you kind of reflect on who it’s associated with, what it’s associated with.
“But working on the King Bible and looking at his handwriting — I remember one in particular. It said ‘Ebenezer,’ which was the church King preached at,” he said. “I read above and below it, trying to figure out what he might have preached about.”
For Ponsford, it’s important to control his emotions when working on artifacts, no matter how significant the artifacts he’s tasked with restoring are. Getting overwhelmed by the importance of the work can actually inhibit the work, he said.
“A friend I had working with me on the King Bible, I handed him the Bible to hold for just a minute while I was doing something,” Ponsford recalled. “He had to hand it back to me, he was so intimidated.
“There is an excitement, though,” he said. “Sometimes you do have to pinch yourself and say, ‘Am I really doing this?’”
That’s how Ponsford felt when he was asked to restore a granite inscription at the tomb of President John F. Kennedy. And when he was asked to preserve artifacts from the RMS Titanic. On top of it all, though, he strives to remember the gravity of what he does and what he’s working on and always do so with respect.
“It’s like when we worked on the Titanic artifacts. We got suitcases, opened them up and the clothes were still folded like they were folded yesterday,” Ponsford said. “It’s awe. But if you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m working on this,’ it fogs up the mind on the perspective of how to restore it.
“At the same time, when we had the Titanic artifacts, I had a conservator dismissed,” he said. “There was a lack of respect for the artifact.”
Over the years, Ponsford has restored dozens of pieces of military equipment, most destined for static displays and veteran’s memorials around the country. But he still strives to maintain that respectful nature, remembering where the equipment came from and the lives associated with it. And how it’s restored reflects on how communities view the veterans who live there, Ponsford said.
“You do a good job and the city is proud to display it for their vets,” he said. “And there’s always that instant gratification when you’re done, that you’ve done it right and it just blows everybody else away.
“I think that pride goes with anyone who loves what they do, whether it’s a baker who bakes a beautiful bread or a craftsman working on an artifact,” Ponsford said. “But everything we work on has somehow historically connected to something.”