“Life is unjust and this is what makes it so beautiful. Every day is a gift. Be brave and take hold of it.”
- Garrison Keillor
Fred has lived an adventurous life. His family came from incredibly humble beginnings, but they shined through it all. Below, you can read a bit of how Fred faced life with bravery and found victory and beauty despite injustice.
My dad was born about 1871 in Lebanon. My dad came to this country with his family about 1891 when he was about 20 years old. He was a peddler who peddled dry goods out of the back of a wagon or a carriage. Sometimes he would just go on horseback as he traveled through the country. That’s how he spent most of his life until about 1905.
Since my dad was much older (he was 59 when I was born), he was not nearly as active while I was growing up as he had been when he was as a younger person. His character is still what resonates with all of us as a family. He was very fair. He would not criticize anybody and he wouldn’t lose his temper. He didn’t ever use a curse word against anybody, even in talking third person. You never would hear him put anybody down that bad. That’s what we all just marveled at because of all the difficulties he must have had as an immigrant. He was a person of honesty; he believed that your name was everything.
Education was the highest on his list of things he wished he had, or could have done. He really pushed us hard on that, “Get an education. It’s something nobody can cheat you out of or take away from you. And it helps you deal with life and responsibility.” Of his eight children, six of us got college degrees on our own hook. We were family-supported on the little stuff, but we all went to college on either borrowed money or scholarships.
We had a guy in our town who had played football and was paralyzed from the waist down from a football injury. That young man’s father had a business across the street from my father, so my dad saw him lots in times in a wheelchair and said to us, “No. I’m not going to let you play football.”
Finally my older sisters and older brothers intervened and said, “It’s a chance to get a college education, Pop. You always said education is the biggest thing. We can’t afford to go any other way except on a scholarship. We either make it academically or we make it on the football field.”
I started playing football when I was a freshman in high school. They were smart enough not to put us up with the big, heavier boys and get hurt. Back in those days, they used common sense instead of regulations. I had played with my brother and our neighbors. I was always a good receiver, but some of the other stuff I was not good at until I got some real legitimate training. I was captain of the football team, and I was on the football team for three years. I earned my letter as a sophomore; I was the only sophomore who earned a letter that year.
We won the state championship in high school and then I got scholarship offers to about three or four colleges. LSU had always been my choice. I went over with the quarterback from my high school team, and we were roommates our freshman year and we played on the freshman football team together. I went into LSU for summer school and stayed till the middle of the following spring.
My oldest brother Moses had always wanted to go to West Point, but could not get an appointment because of political reasons. Our senators and congressmen checked their records, and my dad had never made any political contributions or played any politics. The word got back to us, like it always does in rural communities, that our senator made a statement that was just typical of the times and of Mississippi. “I ain’t never going to give no appointment to no damn Arab!”
Several years later, Moses made the first contact for me to go to West Point. When he was at Ole Miss as a Company Commander in the ROTC, a professor of Military Science and Tactics was a classmate of Earl Blaik, the coach at West Point. The professor wrote to Blaik and told him about me, “Would you be interested in a kid from a small town in Mississippi?” Blaik said, “You know the procedure. Get him in the pipeline.”
I left LSU early, in the middle of the spring semester, and came home because my dad’s health was failing. I knew that if I went off to West Point I wouldn’t ever see him alive again. I talked it over with the family and came home and spent the last three or four months of his life there.
I had had a discussion with my dad. I wasn’t real sure that I wanted to go on through with going to West Point. With the stuff that you could read about those four years, and being away from home – the first year you get no leave at all except when you went on official duty. You didn’t get to come home on Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, or even if somebody died in the family. You didn’t get to come home at all that first year. I just didn’t know whether I wanted to put up with that kind of stuff. And the Korean War broke out ten days before I was supposed to report for duty. All the news up in that part of the country said that any West Pointers who had just graduated and were on leave were supposed to get off of leave and come back to report for duty. It was just like when we were going into World War II. It was tough times.
My dad told me, “Look, I kept you and your brothers off of that football field all these years. You pressured me, and kept on, and begged saying that the only way you could get a college education was with a football scholarship. Think back to all of the times I did not go to the ball games because I was afraid I’d see you hurt. Then you go and you win the state championship! You’re the captain of the team! You’re telling me after going and getting a scholarship, and going to a good prep school at LSU, you’re not going to go and take this appointment?! You do what you want, but you’d be a very big disappointment to me if you didn’t go.” Everybody needs a dad with wisdom like that!
My dad passed away two weeks before I had to report to West Point. It wasn’t unexpected, but it still was a real shock. Pop had always been the stable guy in the family. I’m sure it was just devastating to my mother.
I had a real tough first two or three days when I got off to West Point. I was no different from 100 other guys that were candidates to come up and play football for Army. And my first night away from home, a big thunderstorm came rolling through the mountains. It was a display of lightning like you can’t believe! And I thought I had seen some real ones down in Mississippi. It thundered and lightninged, and it never quit! I just knew I had made a bad mistake, but I had to hang in there.
I had a good time as a freshman at West Point. I hadn’t made my reputation as a football player up there yet. I thought I was good enough to be first team, but the coach didn’t think so. I got up to West Point and they favored all the kids from the northeast: from New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and so forth. But the next year when the politics were out of it, they were looking for team players and I made first team offense and defense. I felt real good about that.
It was an accomplishment just to get through West Point. We lost 25% of our class through attrition. They always told us, “Nobody gets in who is not qualified. Everybody who gets in is qualified to meet all of the curriculum and finish. It’s just a matter of applying yourself and being determined to finish.” All of them who got kicked out, except for medical reasons, just didn’t have the determination to stick it out. As I’ve gotten older over the years, I’ve come to believe that I think that was true. They were not lying to us. Looking back on the people that I knew who dropped out, most of them had better grades than I did but they just couldn’t stand the routine and the “lack of freedom”.
I did feel a sense of accomplishment with my graduation. Everybody in the whole hall could just pop their buttons off, we were all so excited to graduate. I was just glad to get out of there! But I took it all in.
I would like to say to my family and my friends, don’t try to change all those other people around you. Just change yourself, or your attitude, and things will take care of themselves. You will have disappointments. You will be treated unfairly. You will not win the lottery. You could be the best athlete in the world, and the coach will still play his son ahead of you. There are just some things you cannot change. Just be yourself, and then think about how you can be a better citizen or a better person.