I believe a soldier’s untimely death can positively impact many generations to come.
My father’s parents were childhood friends and neighbors in rural southwestern Virginia. They were born and raised in an area so isolated that electricity didn’t arrive until the mid 50’s and the only blacktopped road was the Blue Ridge Parkway—when it arrived in the late 30’s. Education meant one-room elementary schools and a high school that was fifteen miles away, a formidable distance when there were few cars and fewer decent roads. My grandparents fell in love and married in 1942, and my grandfather was drafted almost immediately thereafter. He shipped off for eight months of training in early 1943, leaving my pregnant grandmother at home with her family. He was able to come home for the birth of his son, but left for England when my father was only a week old. Ten months later, my 22-year-old grandfather was killed in an accident near Salisbury, England, leaving a 19-year-old widow and mother at home with little means of support.
Through remarkable determination and the help of her family, my grandmother pulled herself together and focused on creating a future for her son. It was her greatest desire to see my father get an education. At a time when graduating from high school was still not a given, she made plans for him to attend college. She insisted he use his war orphan college scholarship to attend Virginia Tech and made sure he earned his Bachelor’s degree, the first on either side of the family. This scholarship continued to pay for his Master’s degree in Education and eventually allowed my father to pursue a PhD.
My father moved back to his home town, not as a carpenter or a farmer like his family before him, but as a teacher and, eventually, the County Director of Vocational Education. My brother’s and my lives in the 1970’s and 80’s were much different than our Dad’s was thirty years earlier—we had a comfortable, middle-class life, and instead of my parents worrying about how to put food on the table or how badly a drought would set them back, they worried about which college we’d attend and if we’d get into the right graduate school program.
This summer I will take my parents to see the places in England where my grandfather was stationed and died. We’ll have the opportunity to visit the cathedral in London where my grandfather’s name is inscribed in tribute to his war-time sacrifice and we will tour the area where he spent his last 10 months. I’m sure we’ll also lift a pint in his honor at a local pub.
My grandmother turned her great loss into an opportunity for my father, a gift he then passed on to his children. I believe it is now my responsibility to make sure the next generation benefits from the opportunity this tragedy created for me. I am working with a young girl and her grandmother, carefully steering her through the maze of magnet school applications, helping her study for the ubiquitous standardized tests, and promising her that she needn’t worry about how to pay for college. By making sure that one more child has the opportunity, financial support and desire to go to college and rise above her challenging conditions, I will have passed the torch to the next generation. I can pay no greater tribute to my grandfather than to help another generation break free of poverty through the benefit of that war orphan scholarship bestowed by his sacrifice. In this way, the 22-year-old soldier who died so far from the mountains of Virginia still lives, and a terrible tragedy continues to give rise to a legacy of hope.
This I believe.
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