Roanoke College

After decorated career, John Brooks enters “phase 3”

  • After decorated career, John Brooks enters “phase 3”

  • 08/22/12
  • From the Roanoke College Magazine, Issue Two, 2012. View the entire Roanoke Magazine online.

    The theater prepared John Brooks '70 for a career as a U.S. Air Force pilot and international communicator.

    Brooks majored in fine arts, with an emphasis in drama, at Roanoke College. He acted in numerous plays at Roanoke, but he took a particular interest in directing.

    While acting boosted his confidence, directing plays required taking "a group of people, resources and a plan and creating an effect," Brooks said.

    At Roanoke, he said he "learned how to learn." Those skills shaped his decorated career.

    Much of Brooks' life has involved performing and directing, first for his country and later, for Northrop Grumman Corp., a defense and technology company that designs and manufactures military aircraft and spacecraft, command and control systems, and defense electronics. Brooks retired as vice president of international business development and president of Northrop Grumman International in December.

    He landed at Northrop after 28 years in the Air Force, flying planes, commanding airlift units and directing complex defense operations, including humanitarian relief. He won many medals, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.

    Brooks joined the Air Force in 1972, a year after he married his college sweetheart, Gayle Mansfield Brooks '71. The Air Force became his passion.

    "The commitment, the purpose, the teamwork, the serving a higher calling, started to really make sense to me," said Brooks, who retired from the Air Force in 2000 as major general and special assistant to the chief of staff.

    A week later, he became director of Air Force programs for Northrop.

    "His time in the Air Force helped inform the person that he became" at Northrop, said Cynthia Curiel, who is vice president of communications for the company's aerospace business.

    Brooks gained other titles at Northrop, including deputy director of the Washington D.C. bureau. In 2007, he joined the global ranks as vice president of international business development and president of Northrop Grumman International.

    Brooks often moved from time zone to time zone for two weeks straight. He traveled about 300,000 miles a year, some days returning home from Europe with only 12 hours to change suitcases and jump on a flight to Japan or Australia.

    Brooks' strong diplomacy skills boosted Northrop's global reach.

    "John was the kind of person who could build a relationship with anyone,"Curiel said. "He was a great student of the culture that he was engaging with."

    Brooks' travel schedule has eased since retirement, but he hasn't slowed down. He launched a blog at, where he writes daily about wine, wineries and people associated with wine. For a series this summer, he highlighted U.S. wines, traveling to New York, Washington and Oregon. Later this year, he'll visit California and France.

    Brooks also is an aerospace consultant for several companies.

    "I think it's important to have a focus, particularly if you come out of a relatively demanding position and career," said Brooks, who lives in Haymarket, Va. He and his wife have two daughters and three grandchildren.

    Even so, Brooks saw one of his major Northrop projects come full circle in late May.

    Northrop signed a contract to build NATO's Ground Surveillance system, an unmanned, aerial vehicle that surveys geographic areas to show ground activity. The system would help during conflicts and disaster response, Brooks said.

    Brooks was one of its main drivers, Curiel said.

    "A great deal of the reason why it was ultimately signed and approved this year was because of the intensive diplomacy that he developed," she said.

    -Jenny Kincaid Boone '01