Monday, May 29, 2017

Generations of service

“Without heroes, we are all plain people, and don’t know how far we can go.” — Bernard Malamud, one of the best known American Jewish authors of the 20th century

TODAY'S POST on Memorial Day contains a layered, multi-generational story of service and inspiration. Hang with me if you can.

If you read Hey Look Something Shiny with any regularity, you may recall that on Veterans' Day, 2016 I wrote a post about a years-in-the-making design project that Paul and I have had the privilege of producing and installing in five Iowa National Guard / Army Reserve / Veterans' Affairs buildings in the state.

Of all the hundreds and hundreds of finished products we've delivered in more than 25 years in business, I'm proudest of this work.

The work has been ours, but the concept and vision were that of Colonel Scott Ayres, and over the course of several years of collaboration, we've become friends. 

Scott's dad, Boyd Ayres, a retired US Army Major, died in October of 2016, and Scott shared with me the eulogy he delivered as his father's funeral. I was affected by his dad's story and the Ayres family legacy of service. Boyd served and Scott picked up the mantle and continues to serve. 

But the story is even richer than that. 

Recently Scott found an email that his dad had sent to his sons in 2012 about the teacher and World War II veteran who inspired Boyd to become both a teacher and a serviceman.

First here's Boyd's (abbreviated) story from his son, Scott.

"Boyd LeRoy Ayres was born prematurely in a blizzard on a northern Missouri farm on January 24, 1941. He weighed just 2-3/4 pounds and was not expected to live. On the night of his birth, his granddad trekked to town on a sleigh to retrieve the doctor and then constructed an incubator to keep the newborn alive. Boyd persevered, demonstrating the strong will to live that was present every day of his seventy-five years.  

Dad was an Army paratrooper and then a Special Forces soldier — a Green Beret — with 47 jumps, who served in Okinawa, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam. He was one of the first soldiers to be authorized to wear a Green Beret, and it was a lifelong source of enormous pride for him and his family that he was "one of America's best."  

As President Kennedy proclaimed when he authorized it, "Wear the beret proudly. It will be a mark of distinction and a badge of courage in the difficult days ahead." 

Dad later joined the Army Reserve, received a direct commission, served on active duty during Desert Storm and retired as a Major in the Cavalry

Boyd was the first member of his family to graduate from college, graduating from the University of Northern Iowa with a bachelor's degree in American history. After graduation, he taught at Williams Junior High in Davenport where he was recognized as the Iowa Reservist teacher of the year in 1979.

Boyd brought history alive to his students, dressing up in period costumes. Students often remembered him as their favorite teacher, and to his great joy, some maintained contact with him throughout his life. Many former students have told us they became teachers because of Dad.

He loved his family — five children, 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He also loved Irish folk music, telling stories, history, teaching, genealogy, the Iowa Hawkeyes and just being an American soldier and an American citizen. Dad was so very proud of being both.  

Boyd prized his Irish ancestry and somehow got to know every Irish folk singer who toured America. Before he died, Dad let me know that Safe in the Harbour — which one of the singers will perform as the closing song today — explains how he felt at the end.  

He will be deeply missed by his friends and family, but in the best Irish and Trooper tradition, you may find him now at Fiddler's Green."


But now, as Paul Harvey used to say, here's the rest of the story — 
revealed in an email Scott's dad sent his sons in 2012 identifying the role model for Boyd's career as a teacher and a soldier. 

"I got in today's Emmetsburg paper the obituary of Robert Sackett, who was probably one of the most influential people in my life while I was growing up. I sent a condolences note to his wife and family on the funeral home's website today.

Anyway, boys, if you click onto the video portion about him on the funeral home's obituary list, you will see a video about, oh 10 minutes or so I guess, of his life. 

And in that video (I was amazed) — you will see your dad in a photo playing the trumpet with a little band I was in with Mr. Sackett. I guess I would've been maybe  14 or 15 or so, but a pretty good photo. As I remember, I believe we were called the Cylinder Sidewinders and even went to Ames to appear on TV for some reason or another.

He was a WWII vet; had made the Normandy landing with the 1st Infantry Division. He was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, and was a POW. While a POW, he was tortured on Christmas Eve 1944 because the guards caught him playing a homemade harmonica of Christmas Carols.  

But the thing that earned him his punishment scar, was that when the guards first caught him playing, he began to play the Star Spangled Banner because, he said, "I was in trouble anyway!"  

The man had this long indented scar on his upper arm where a hot poker iron had been placed on it, but as he said, "I never said I was sorry for making and playing the harmonica." 

I remember one Christmas program at school, and the lights were down while we playing a Christmas song for the crowd and the program, and Mr. Sackett broke down crying and had to leave the stage. He later told all us kids that he had just remembered the Christmas in his POW camp.

This was a teacher, boys, who would (and I know this came out of his own pocket) buy us plastic airplane models to give to us during the summer months if we would practice our instruments as enticements to do so. He would take us band boys on camping trips and would let us fire his German Luger at targets on those camping trips.  

I remember he told me once that in order to smuggle it home on the ship when he was released to come home, he took it apart and taped all the pieces across his belly under a big gauze pad as if he had a bad stomach wound.  

I saw him in about 1999 when I stopped by his place in Emmetsburg, and we had a long and wonderful talk. He told me that his son had rented or bought Saving Private Ryan for him to see, but he told him, "Dad, look you might not want to see it, so be warned."  

Bob told me that he wanted his wife to see what Normandy was like. He said, "Boyd, the only thing that was missing was the smell of the blood and the diesel smoke."

I last saw him at the last class reunion I attended in 2009 in Emmetsburg. He was an extraordinary guy who touched my life in so many ways during those years I lived at Cylinder. And I am now so grateful that I let him know that when I stopped to see him at his place in 1999."

Boyd Ayres on trumpet and his teacher, Bob Sackett taken about 1955.


  1. What a beautiful tribute from a proud son! I love it. Lots of love, respect and admiration in those words.

  2. Thankyou for sharing this amazing story! Grateful for heroes like this man.