EBENSBURG - As Gov. Tom Corbett and his entourage toured the Lockheed Martin C-130 manufacturing plant in Johnstown in February, Cambria County President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder could be seen a few paces back, admiring the sections of aircraft fuselage in varying degrees of assembly.
With his fellow commissioners and a small group of reporters in tow, Lengenfelder, a retired Air Force colonel, spoke of foreign object damage (a misplaced pen jamming the plane's controls could be disastrous) and reminisced about his 30 years in the service.
But grounded in his new role as county commissioner, Lengenfelder said a career in politics after retiring from active service was never on his radar - until he and his family settled in Pennsylvania.
"I got back here and loved it," Lengenfelder said. "I loved the people, I loved the place. You can't imagine how much I really, really like living here."
Lengenfelder and his wife, Terry, a 20-year retiree of the Air Force, originally considered settling down elsewhere - as far away as South Africa and Australia, he said.
But after visiting his wife's family in Geistown, the two decided to move to Cambria County.
"She almost fainted," Lengenfelder said with a laugh. "It's one of the better decisions I've made in my life, thanks to the help of my lovely wife."
Lengenfelder credits his wife and family with much of his success. At a recent commissioner's meeting at Central Cambria High School, he paused in his opening remarks to acknowledge his wife - after failing to thank her at the last community meeting, he said.
Lengenfelder has logged over 3,500 hours of flying time in the Air Force, the majority of it as an instructor. He has traveled to over 50 countries, spent time as the U.S. Defense Attache in Argentina, and survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
Once in charge of hundreds of service personnel and military budgets in the millions, Lengenfelder said he was frustrated upon settling in Pennsylvania as local officials attempted to fix problems through increased taxes and spending.
"I got tired about some of the decisions that were coming out," Lengenfelder said. "Rarely was the perfect decision just throwing money at it."
After being elected to office, Lengenfelder, along with fellow Commissioners Mark Wissinger and Tom Chernisky, elected to pursue a "zero-balance" budget and commit to spending time out of the office and in the communities they serve.
"There's a huge difference sitting behind a desk, having somebody tell you what you want to hear, versus going out and seeing what the ground truth is," Lengenfelder said.
"The amount the three of us get out and about, I think creates a much better understanding in terms of what's on peoples' minds, what's happening in our county, and how we might be able to help with what's going on," he said.
Controller Ed Cernic Jr. said Lengenfelder and the other commissioners are learning how to handle the ins-and-outs of county government.
"A lot of times you want to do something, but your hands are tied," Cernic said. "Coming into office with the kind of financial burden they've had, it's been more than challenging."
Lengenfelder's military background and leadership experience has helped him adjust to his new role as commissioner, but it's not without its detriments, Cernic said.
Even compared with military bureaucracy, county government can move "slowly," Cernic said - with complex legal processes, meetings to establish funding streams and soliciting input from various departments, agencies and row officers.
Commissioner Mark Wissinger, who ran with Lengenfelder on the Republican ticket, said the pair have adapted well to their roles in county government.
"We work well together, and I think Tom Chernisky is blending well, too," Wissinger said. "We really try to work well and consult each other as far as issues and make sure everybody is on the same page."
Despite the challenges of inheriting a county budget in massive debt, Lengenfelder said he is committed to the future of the area he has dubbed "Energy County" due to the area's investments in its people, clean coal and wind energies.
"Everybody has strengths and weaknesses," Lengenfelder said. "We're trying to work through how we can best keep this budget under control, and that takes everybody, absolutely everybody."
"I am so excited about Cambria County's future, for many reasons," he added with a laugh. "Our 'Energy County' is exactly that - full of energy - and I'm not just talking wind power."
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.