Saluting a notable survivor


With Papa in Tennessee during our family vacation in 2008

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Saluting a notable survivor, originally published May 26, 2001

By Bobby Ross Jr.

As a freckle-faced kid, I never thought much about my grandfather’s contributions to World War II.

I just knew his leathery hands and gray hair made him smarter than anybody, including Mom and Dad.

“Papa Ross” knew everything about hammering nails, shooting deer and sticking the worm on the hook just the right way so you caught a boat full of fish.

Grandma might groan when Papa opened his mouth and, for the 15th time in the same afternoon, explained why Ford trucks were best or why he’d never – until Ronald Reagan – vote for a Republican. But I never tired of hearing Papa talk. I still don’t.

It took growing up, though, for me to realize what a true gift from God my Papa is.

I look at my dad, and I look at myself, and I see Papa reflected in so many ways. His faith in God. His love of country. Even his stubbornness.

My earliest memories of Papa, a retired farmer and carpenter, now 83, are on a light blue church bus in a small, southeastern Missouri town.

Every Sunday morning, Papa and Grandma would get up early and drive all over the countryside, picking up children, taking them to church and teaching them to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”

Years later, I learned that not everyone had appreciated Papa’s bus ministry. You start filling a white church’s pews with black children, especially in the early 1970s, and people talk.

Some of those white critics still worship at that little church.

And, thanks to Papa and Grandma, so do some of those black children, all grown up with kids of their own.

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As a freckle-faced kid, I saw the scar on Papa’s face. I knew he fought in World War II because Mom and Dad told me he did. But he never uttered a single word about it. And I didn’t dare ask.

Recently, though, my dad came across a book titled “Brave Men,” by the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle, and found Papa on page 54.

Oh, he’s not mentioned by name, but the soldier described is him.

We know it is because when Papa was in the operating room that day in 1943, someone asked him: “Do you know who that is? That’s Ernie Pyle.”

Here’s how Pyle described Papa:

“One soldier had caught a machine-gun bullet right alongside his nose. It had made a small clean hole and gone through his cheek, leaving – as it came out – a larger hole just beneath his ear. It gave me the willies to look at it, yet the doctors said it wasn’t serious at all and would heal with no bad effects.”


When I read that, about my own grandfather, I thought about how easy my own generation has had it.

Papa donned Army olive drab and risked his life in Sicily. Dad donned Air Force blue and spent a year, away from his wife and children, in Greece.

Me? I occasionally fight rush-hour traffic on the Broadway Extension.

As a freckle-faced kid, I thought Papa was perfect, and I loved him more than anything.

But a year-and-a-half ago, I found out Papa – this man who raised four children and three grandchildren and spent many years as a houseparent at a Christian children’s home – had a secret.

He fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter.

My first reaction was disbelief.

So was his.

Obviously, Papa knew he had a relationship with a woman who wasn’t his wife.

That relationship, however, occurred more than 60 years earlier. Before Papa married Grandma. Before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Before Papa became the man he is.

Papa’s girlfriend moved away and never told him she was pregnant.

So, to put it mildly, it was a surprise when a woman with grandchildren of her own called Papa and Grandma’s house in Tennessee just before Christmas 1999, looking for her father.

An even bigger surprise: She found him.

The man who had raised the woman, the man she had always believed was her biological father, had told her on his death bed about Papa.

So, she went looking for him.

Papa invited the woman to visit him and his family. Despite his obvious embarrassment, he acted with honor and dignity. He took responsibility for his actions, even if he could barely remember them.

As a freckle-faced kid, I appreciated a Papa who was Superman, the Lone Ranger and Grizzly Adams all wrapped up in one.

As a balding 33-year-old, I appreciate even more a Papa who is human, just like me. After all, if a man can make mistakes in his life and still turn out as great as my Papa, there’s hope for me.

This Memorial Day weekend, I’ll pause and pay tribute to the American military heroes who never came home.

I’ll also thank God for one who did.

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