Veteran's Day Story


Veteran's Day Story from President of Washington Club,
Libby Baskerville Hiltgen

It's hard to believe that October is behind us and November is already here! As we enter the "month of giving thanks" head on, I am reminded of a story my Dad always shared with us about his most memorable Thanksgiving. It was 1969, Dad had voluntarily enlisted in the United States Army, and was going through advanced individual training (AIT) at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. While at Fort Leonard Wood, Dad auditioned for and made the post choir. As Thanksgiving approached that November the Warrant Officer who directed the choir happened to pick Dad as the soloist for "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to be sung at all three Thanksgiving services, and the Post Commandant would be at the 11:00 service, along with some special guests.
The acoustics in the big post chapel were outstanding, and when Dad stepped forward to the balcony railing for "Battle Hymn," the sound literally exploded in multiple directions. When the last service ended, the choir was asked to remain in the loft because the Post Commandant wanted to thank them for the special music. After the choir was greeted and thanked, they remained at attention while the Commandant talked to the choir director. "Private Baskerville, front and center!" the Warrant Officer called out. Dad quickly made his way down three rows of pews. "Private Baskerville reporting as ordered, Sir!" Dad said to the director. "At ease, private," the General commanded. "I thought you did an outstanding job on the solo part, soldier. My wife and I are hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for some special friends, and we'd like to invite you, and perhaps a couple of your choir buddies, to our home."
Dad and two of his army-choir buddies were loaded into the General's limousine- style staff car. Dad and his buddies faced the rear of the vehicle, while the General, his wife, and an elderly couple faced the front. Dad tried not to stare at the Commandant. Instead, he focused on the older couple sitting on either side of the General and his wife. The older gentleman smiled at Dad a couple of times as they drove through the post and followed the winding road uphill to the antebellum-style home the General and his wife lived in. When they reached the house, the driver opened the side doors and the seven passengers exited the vehicle. Dad couldn't help but notice the red flags attached to each fender. Each one displayed five stars. That should have been his first clue, but the day had been anything but ordinary and he wasn't thinking clearly.
The meal came and went. Following dessert the approximately 30 guests got up from the table and made their way into the adjoining parlor and sitting room. Small talk and conversation ensued for quite awhile. After sitting on a hard, overstuffed sofa for about an hour, Dad got up to stretch his legs and decided to take his coffee out on the veranda. Dad walked to the railing at the patio's edge and looked out at the woods and its fall foliage.
As he turned to walk back into the house, he was surprised to see the elderly gentleman who had accompanied them earlier in the limo sitting at one of the tables, smoking a cigar. The gentleman told Dad to sit down, take a load off. They started with small talk, but eventually the gentleman asked Dad, "So you want to be a leader of men, eh?" "Yessir," Dad answered. The gentleman sat back in his chair, puffed on the stogie for awhile, and then said, "Well, I'm going to give you some of the best advice I ever had, son." The distinguished looking gentleman paused for a few seconds, and then said, "Before you can be a good leader, you have to learn to become a good follower." "Yessir," Dad answered. He didn't have a clue what the man was talking about.
On the ride back, Dad and his buddies sat in silence for awhile. Dad finally broke the silence and said, "Boy, that was neat. The General sure has a nice Dad." "Dad?" one of his friends said. "What 'dad'?" My Dad responded with, "The older gentleman I was talking with out on the patio."
"How many months ago did your family get off the boat, Baskerville?" Dad's buddy asked. "Didn't you notice the five stars on the flags?" Dad hesitated..."Uh, yeah, I guess." His other buddy piped up, "That was one of the 'special guests' we heard about at choir practice a week ago. The older gentleman you had a half-hour conversation with outside," Dad's friend explained, "is the armed forces' Chief of Staff and General of the Army, Omar Bradley."
Over the years Dad had a lot of opportunities to reflect on General Bradley's words of wisdom, and concluded that the General was right. You can't be a good leader until you've learned how to become a good follower. I was fortunate enough to observe and witness, first hand, my Dad live by these words during his too-short life here on earth. There was no way he could have led others in the path his personal Lord and Savior took unless he had first learned to follow "Him." There is no way he could have efficiently and effectively led his men in the Army unless he knew what was expected of him as an efficient and effective follower. He couldn't have been a caring and compassionate school administrator unless he had been a caring and compassionate teacher. He could not have been a good neighbor to humankind unless he had followed the footprints of good neighbors who went before him.
Dad also remembered General Bradley telling him," Never expect more of your men than you expect of yourself. If you can't or won't do it, don't ask them to shoulder the responsibility," and, "Never sell yourself short- you can accomplish anything you set your mind to."
I have been disappointed and a little discouraged by attendance at recent meetings and the lack of enthusiasm surrounding Rotary and our events and projects. Maybe it's my leadership, maybe I didn't do a sufficient job of "following" before stepping into the role of President. As I reflect on my time in this position thus far, I realize that I want to be an example of General Bradley's words. I want to be a good leader, but I understand that in order to do so, I need to step up, and not expect more of my fellow Rotarians than I expect of myself. I need to lead by example: by participating in and attending as many events as possible; by encouraging members who haven't been attending meetings very regularly to "come back,"; by trying to recruit new members who would be great contributors to our organization. I challenge all of you do to the same. I am proud of our Rotary Club, I am proud of the service we provide to our community, and I am proud of what I know we are capable of. Let's all begin to be good followers.