This is among my Uncle W.B. Woodruff’s favorite photos. When he and my Aunt Mary Louise moved into a retirement home three months ago, he put it on his desk. On the wall he hung the Army’s citation for his unit’s firefight over two days in Korea in 1951. His service with a band of brothers in ground combat, in Burma during the Second World War and then in Korea, was a highlight of his life. To me there were others: husband of 71 years, father of five, lawyer, civic leader, businessman and, of course, my mom’s big brother, 10 years older.
This morning, traveling from my hometown Denton to Marathon near Big Bend National Park, I was to have breakfast with my aunt and uncle. W.B. had died in his sleep, age 92.
He was the long survivor of three siblings. Jack died 30 years ago. Mom left in 2005. All three shared a dry wit, a gentle spirit, and an appreciation of serving causes greater than one’s own. W.B. and I also shared a name: Willard Bennett Sr. was his dad, for whom I was named.
More than that, we shared a passion for history. For several years three decades ago, we exchanged frequent letters on events and our takes on them. He sent me chapters of a memoir on his war experience, and I wrote of my work as a congressional reporter. He closed one letter (all on Army unit letterhead), “You have a facility with the mother-tongue.” He would know.
Our correspondence was centered on the period he made occasional visits to Washington for reunions of his Korea outfit and meetings to plan the war memorial that was to be built near the Reflecting Pool, south of the Vietnam Wall. I took him on tours of Civil War battlefields in Virginia, where we engaged in commentaries about the battles and their meaning. We did not agree politically, and we easily set those differences aside.
I’m sorry we missed breakfast this morning, but I am grateful I arrived in Decatur, Mom’s hometown, while his physical form was still there, looking so much like his baby sister had, and that I was on scene to be with my aunt and cousins, who had been there for us when Mom passed.
After taking leave of them, I had lunch at Mom’s (and Jack’s) grave site, a mile away. W.B. will be buried just up the row.