From the start of his civilian career with the United States Army in 2002 as a mechanical engineer, Kenneth Chenoweth’s earliest ambition was to work in a field where he could use his hands and utilize his mechanical skills. Later, he stepped up his career goals and turned his sights toward a division chief position and, maybe even one day, a director’s. Today, Chenoweth is the director of the Missiles and Sensors Test Directorate with the United States Army Redstone Test Center, or RTC, a United States Army Test and Evaluation Command, or ATEC, test agency located on Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. It’s one of the highest-ranking civilian positions at RTC and one he didn’t expect to reach at such an early age. He is 46.
Chenoweth, the youngest of 4 boys, was born in Rochester, Michigan, to a lower-middle-class family. The family moved to his mother’s home state of Alabama when he was four. They lived in the small town of Holly Pond, which has a population of fewer than 900 residents, in Cullman County. Holly Pond gets its name from the two natural ponds in the area that are surrounded by holly trees. His father worked in construction and owned a masonry business. His mother didn’t work outside the home until he got older. When Chenoweth was in middle school, his mother went back to school and earned an Associate’s degree in paralegal studies from Calhoun Community College. She also acquired a realtor’s license and sold real estate.
His parents divorced when he was five, and he and his brothers continued to live with his mother. Life became difficult after the divorce, even more so when his mother was severely injured in a car accident shortly afterward, leaving her disabled and unable to walk or work. Chenoweth and his brothers had to pitch in to manage the things their mother couldn’t. They also moved often and never stayed in one place for more than five years. His mother gradually regained her ability to walk, initially with the aid of a walker. But she was never free of the residual pain from her injuries.
Both his parents remarried, and Chenoweth gained a stepmother and a stepfather. His stepfather worked for Chrysler in manufacturing but was a skilled automotive mechanic who passed his extensive mechanical skills to his stepsons. Chenoweth later used these skills to help his father maintain his construction equipment. During the weekends and most of his summer vacations, he worked as a laborer with his father on construction jobs. It was tough work, but it gave him hands-on training in bricklaying and stone masonry. It also allowed him to spend more time with his dad, who he didn’t see as often as he wanted because he was always working.
Chenoweth graduated from East Limestone High School in 1994. He had always been a good student and was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his senior classmates. Although he had consistently maintained a high grade point average throughout high school, it still didn’t earn him a college scholarship. His family didn’t have the money for college either. He didn’t know how he would do it, but Chenoweth knew he wouldn’t let the lack of a scholarship or money stop him from getting his education. For him, failure was not an option.
In 1997, Chenoweth went to work as an engineering technician for Engineering Research and Consulting, or ERC, an aerospace company and defense contractor in Huntsville that provides engineering and technical services to RTC. He was later recruited by RTC in 2002 as a mechanical engineer. He funded his undergraduate and graduate degrees with the salaries he earned from ERC and RTC. Today, he holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a Master’s in management from the Florida Institute of Technology.
While working full-time and taking college courses toward his undergraduate degree in the evenings, he married his high school sweetheart. They met in 1993 and were married in 2000. August 2023 will mark 23 years of marriage. With little to no time to socialize, Chenoweth learned the values of time management, prioritizing tasks, and the rewards of being organized early on in his career—all of which contributed to his being identified as an emerging leader.
Chenoweth is a humble and self-effacing leader who doesn’t like braggarts—the people who boast about what they’re doing or how well they’ve done. In his opinion, too many believe they work harder than their peers when they know too little about their teammates’ individual missions to make a fair comparison. When pressed, he stubbornly refuses to discuss his accomplishments. He will discuss his team’s achievements without mentioning any of his own. As a senior leader in RTC, he feels his role is to make those around him successful and, hopefully, grow them into leaders.
He wasn’t always in a position to do this. Since his early years of working with his dad and stepdad, he has always enjoyed working with his hands and on vehicles. He credits his dads with igniting his passion for becoming a mechanical engineer. Even career-wise, he never considered working in a field that wasn’t mechanically inclined. His career goals didn’t start to shift until a former supervisor told him he had the potential to become a leader and encouraged him to focus more on his leadership skills instead of his technical ones.
He started applying for division chief positions. He interviewed for many and was turned down at least five times. But he didn’t give up—instead, he worked on improving his interviewing techniques. After each rejection, he requested a debrief by the interviewing panel. This helped him understand why he wasn’t selected and gave him the information he needed to better prepare for future interviews. His persistence paid off in 2015 when he was promoted to division chief. Six years later, he became a director.
Today he leads a team of approximately 300 test professionals, supervises four divisions, and manages a test management office. His directorate supports missile flight and lethality testing, missile telemetry and flight termination systems, and aviation and missile propulsion and sensors testing.
His advice? Never give up. Just because you failed initially doesn’t mean you won’t get another opportunity.