Remembering a Great American

Oh, I’m not talking about a President or famous patriot. Oh no, I’m remembering an ordinary farm boy who knew his duty and joined up to bring the tyrant Hitler and the Japanese militarists to their knees in WWII.

Do you remember December 7, 1941? Probably not unless you are over 90 years of age. I was 28 months old, so my memory is lacking. But soon after that horrific event, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany. And then an incredible thing happened. Uncle Sam called on Americans to join the fight and guess what–the Greatest Generation stepped forward. This story is about one of those Great Americans, Don T., a farm boy who grew up in a rural central Illinois village (population 1200 in 1940). In 1943, he graduated from high school with the war raging in Europe and the Pacific.

Don T. learned hard work on the farm with chores daily and more in the summer when planting and then the autumn when harvesting set in. His farm work kept him from participating in after-school sports and other activities, but somehow, Don T. signed up to be a cheer leader for the Redwings basketball team. He didn’t care that he would miss many activities because he knew that his father depended on him to get through the hard times that followed the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Farming during the war and in the years after was a helter-skelter enterprise with commodity prices for milk, eggs, and meat jumping nearly daily from one price to another. The federal government had not yet recognized the need to step in and stabilize markets, so it was left up to every farmer to determine when he should sell and when not.

Nonetheless, the war ground on. Don T. didn’t own a rifle or know how to swim, but he knew that his country was calling, and Don T. knew the meaning of duty and responsibility. So, upon graduating from high school, off he went to become a sailor and train at the Great Lakes Naval Center near Chicago. How fearsome it must have been for him to jump from a 100-foot platform into Lake Michigan, simulating a desperate jump from a U.S. war vessel.

But jump he did and then off to the far Pacific where he became a Seabee building roads, bridges, bunkers, airfields, and logistics bases needed to get American forces closer to Japan. Two years later the war ended in 1945, and he shipped home to take up farming and his life once more.

He soon reconnected with his high school sweetheart Bettie Jean with marriage around the corner in 1946. A youngster soon followed, and Don T. worked harder than ever to keep the farm solvent. The post-war years were not easy, but his work ethic found him farming and often working at night to drive a load of cattle or pigs to the Chicago stock yards or running the local movie projector at the Palace Theater also known as Louie’s. With two jobs he was able to provide for his family and in time buy additional soil rich acres in Central Illinois.

Of course, farmers are human beings that suffer the fate of aging like all of us. Don T. miraculously roared past 70, then 80, to reach 98 years of age. He quit farming and leased his land. Winter had taken its toll on Don T., so he and his lovely wife Bettie Jean became Florida snowbirds. This respite provided time for him to enjoy his musical talents. Untrained, he could play the saxophone with gusto and hit the snare drums without missing a beat. His wife traveled this journey with him for more than 70 years, surely a sign of a man dedicated to love and duty beyond the pale. As a dedicated and loving son, when his mother was stricken with cancer, he and Bettie Jean along with their four girls moved to his dad’s farm home to care for her and after her death, care for his father.

Oh, by now, you may have guessed that he married my sister and was my brother-in-law. So, the joke about family outlaws is misplaced for Don T.

I will be forever grateful to DonT. I learned work ethic, discipline, and the meaning of duty from him when I plowed and raked hay with an awesome ole John Deere. (A 3-wheeler machine so big in its day that it could pull a freight train.) He was a truly Great American who made me a proud American!

Donald C. Menzel, Ph.D. is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years. Don and Kay have recently moved back to Florida.

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3 Replies to “Remembering a Great American”

  1. I was in High School when this happened. I remember Dec 7 well. Thank you for the memory.
    Glad you are back in Florida

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