When the Hope Star closed its doors last year, my Hempstead County pal Mark Keith was one of the folks who helped fill the void with the Hope-Prescott News. Recently, Mark found an amazing artifact. It’s a book called The Men and Women in World War II from Hempstead County and as he started sharing the photos of the pages online I was, like many of my friends, enthralled waiting for the next installment.
Growing up, I was a huge fan of John Wayne movies and as page after page from this book was shared I saw people I knew growing up in a new light. These were just ordinary folks, doing regular jobs, in an everyday city in rural Arkansas... but what this book reveals is that I was walking among some giants and didn't even know it. Let me share a few of these hometown heroes with you.
Judge Wisenberger lived next-door to my grandparents. He was a probate judge for many many years. My grandfather and Judge Wisenberger had a garden together. I would ride with them in the truck to the garden and help them and, let me tell you, these two were very serious about their garden. I loved listening to them tell stories but I never heard them talk about the war. Never. Instead they talked about growing tomatoes, the latest happenings at the courthouse, or the news from folks who passed through my grandfather's grocery store.
Judge Wisenberger distinguished himself among his peers so much so that the county named the new judge’s office building after him when he retired. I always feel like I’m going to an old friend’s home when I walk into the building that bears his name. He was such a reserved man. I never imagined him being a battling soldier who earned five Battle Stars. Just to put this into perspective, a Battle Star is issued to U.S. Navy ships for participation in battles. That's a lot to crow about, but instead this gentleman focused his energies on his community and love of the law.
Another from the book I fondly remember is Cecil Cox. Mr. Cox was the rural mailman and he would deliver the mail from post office to post office. He traveled the gravel roads and would deliver to citizens on the rule route.
We would be riding our bicycles and he would always stop and visit with us. He was always smiling and cheerful and made us feel better about ourselves. I had no idea that he had been captured by the Nazis and held as a prisoner of war for five months. He was one of those men that you knew would do anything if you asked him to. He was a great neighbor and lived in Fulton which is close by Columbus. I have to wonder in retrospect if his ordeal with being a prisoner of war shaped his interactions with us kids. He had profound patience and and an uplifting spirit. Maybe he wanted all of us to know that we mattered and that life was precious after what he witnessed.
And, of course there's my dad. He has always been my hero but to see him as a Navy Midshipman brought back memories.
Dad was good friends with Erwin Young who was known as “EP” Young. EP was married to a lady named Cat and they owned the Chevrolet dealership in Hope. The only time I heard war stories was when EP and my dad would visit. The liked to swap Navy stories and I loved to listen to them talk about ships they served on and places they lived.
EP was my Sunday School teacher. The lessons I learned from him were immense. I remember sitting on a hard wood pew in our little church and listening to EP talk about the passages we had studied. I hope EP knew the impact he had on me and so many of my peers and that his influence continues on in the work we do to make the lives of others better.
You know, other than when they were visiting, I never heard my dad or EP talk about serving in the Navy but it is obvious from the types of lives they lead that they felt that calling deeply and continued to live up to the oath they made as servicemen.
Hometown hero: it takes on a new meaning when you put faces and names together. I kick myself now. While I was paying attention to what was happening at the Saturday matinee I should have been talking to these folks and listening to their stories. But, as so often is the case, they served with honor and returned home to work hard and raise families and did not often speak of the time they were in uniform but were so proud to have served.
Funny story, my father was, for a time, stationed at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and became the commandant of the United States Naval Academy when he retired in 1970. My earliest memories are from the officers barracks and I recalled to a friend recently the story of my mother, who had put her little toddler down for a nap so she could get a bit of rest, being rudely awakened by a knock on the door. “Mrs. Jackson?” the young cadet said. “I believe this belongs to you?” And he handed me over. Apparently I was so interested in what the guys were doing out on the parade grounds that I wanted to join in.