Following in the footsteps of the Greatest Generation

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications

“Where are the men like that today?”

My wife, Melissa, asked me that question during a phone conversation June 17. I did not take offense because I knew to which man she referred. She had been reading the obituary of Ed Penick, 92, husband, father, grandfather, CEO of Worthen Bank, community leader, and World War II photoreconnaissance pilot.

I became acquainted with Ed about 12 years ago when Melissa and I were hired to write his and wife Evelyn’s joint biography. His life was marked by integrity, loyalty, and love for his family and friends. By the time we became acquainted, the years and 10 grandchildren had softened his heart, but not his character. His voice often would catch as he recounted his memories, but only very briefly. A man like that maintains control.

His devotion to his grandchildren was almost comical. He would take the whole clan to the lakehouse and make them spend the morning doing chores, always exhorting them to “Be happy in your work!” He led them in fun activities and taught them patriotic songs. At his funeral, granddaughter Evelyn Wade spoke of family members discovering a lockbox that they assumed would be filled with his important documents. Indeed, important items were inside – letters and report cards from his grandkids. “We were his prized possessions,” she said.

Ed was one of many members of his generation whom I’ve gotten to know as biography subjects, friends and family members. Cletis Overton of Malvern survived the Bataan Death March and years of brutal imprisonment, escaped from a sinking ship, and built a life for himself and his family. His story of courage, humility and faith inspired many people. Wallace Eldridge of Wynne crossed the English Channel three days after D-Day and fought his way across Europe. Many years later, he became my tennis partner, and still is a friend. My grandfather, George Brawner, served on a Navy troop transport, fought in the Battle of Okinawa, and with wife Dorothy raised four kids. His service in the Navy was appropriate, because he was an anchor for the family.

Most of the men and women of that era have left us, and the rest will be leaving us soon. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the 16 million Americans who served in uniform in that conflict have dwindled to a little more than a million. The youngest of them are in their late 80s now, and they are dying at a rate of 555 each day. After this year, there will be no World War II veterans left in Congress. The Axis Powers couldn’t stop them, but no one defeats Father Time.

What an amazing people they have been, and what lives they have led. They conquered the Great Depression, won a World War, and handed the rest of us a free and prosperous country. Certainly, that generation had its shortcomings – racial equality being perhaps the most obvious one. But we succeeding generations have our own deeds left undone. No one ever said our grandparents were the Perfect Generation. Just the Greatest one.

Following in their footsteps will not be easy. The rest of us have been disadvantaged by our advantageous upbringings. Unlike our elders, we have never saved the world once, much less several times. We’ve experienced a few recessions, but not a character-shaping depression.

But we have been given this gift: We can learn from our elders’ examples. The quality that most defined men like Ed Penick wasn’t their occasional heroism but their lifelong faithfulness. By learning that quality, the rest of us can become men like that today.

In fact, we must. We don’t have to equal the Greatest Generation, but, lest we dishonor its memory, we have to be good enough.

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