“No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.”—Calvin Coolidge
The year was 1987. 21 years wise and freshly graduated from college, I was ready to begin my teaching career. After making the long walk from the main part of the building that contained classrooms and administrative offices, through the cafeteria, past the concession stands area used during basketball season, through the entire length of the gym, up the back stairway that led to the underside of gym bleachers, through two other makeshift classrooms, separated by rolling chalkboards, I finally arrived in my “classroom.” I sighed, in a state of shock and dismay.
One “wall” was literally the underbelly of the gymnasium bleachers. Another “wall” was the rolling chalkboards by which I had passed. A third wall, across from the bleachers, was a painted concrete wall stained with yellow mold; and, the final wall, was a padded medal door that I would later learn was filled with weapons used by the Greenup County High School ROTC students. And, with those students would enter a man I would come to know as Marine retired Lt. Col. Vance Huston—a man I would consider a mentor during my first year of teaching and during his last year as an educator.
However, on that first day, weeks before students arrived, I looked around this so-called room and wondered if I had made a huge mistake. Was this the job meant for me? How could I ever be expected to teach in such dismissal surroundings with no window or source of natural light? I sat and stared. This was not the setting for which I prepared in the idyllic world of textbooks, professors, and idealistic future teachers.
Nonetheless, I threw back my shoulders and began the task of cleaning, tidying, and arranging the room as best I could. I was able to hang a few colorful posters/charts on the two-door metal cabinet that stood along the concrete wall, stacked a few battered textbooks that my 9-12 grade special educations students were supposed to use, as well as a few of my own reference books. I would make the best of the situation.
Thinking determined thoughts on that long ago end-of-July-day, I was startled by a man quietly entering my room. While I do not recall his exact words, I do remember his kind, twinkling eyes and warm smile. He said something about the fact that he wasn’t used to seeing teachers in their classrooms so early before the start of school. Then, he introduced himself as, “Col. Huston,” and offered his hand to shake.
He was relaxed, confident, and warm. Sitting on the top of a student desk, he began asking questions, seemingly eager to figure out who I was. As I answered, I remember the way he would nod his head and simultaneously close his eyes as if trying remember each word I stated. He smiled frequently, and continued to engage me with questions.
After asking numerous questions, he launched into a personal story meant to serve as a mini-life lesson for me. That was the beginning of what would become a nearly daily occurrence at the end of each school day.
“Ms. Musick, how are you today?”
“Ms. Musick, did the kids treat you well?”
“Ms. Musick, how are you getting along?”
“Ms. Musick, how are you liking it here?”
No matter what question with which he began our conversation (after he was certain the padded door to the weapons rooms was locked and secure) he managed to turn my answer into a story/mini-lesson.
During these conversations, he revealed he was originally from and educated in California, and that I, too, must one day acquire a Masters Degree in Education as he had earned. He frequently talked of his Marine service that followed, for which he was commissioned in 1955. Never once, however, did he reveal that he was White House Helicopter support for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson from 1960-1964. He did certainly share that he flew Marine C-130s during two tours of Vietnam from 1965 (the year in which I was born) to 1970. And, while I knew he had survived a horrific helicopter crash that ultimately served as a vehicle for his deeply convicted faith, I never realized how bad the crash was until recently viewing the picture of mangled, twisted, and warped metal that was once the helicopter from which he, and the other men, miraculously walked away.
After his service in Vietnam, Lt. Col. Huston was a Commanding Officer of a wing equipment and repair squadron at Cherry Point, North Carolina. Next, he served as Executive Officer, Marine barracks, Subic Bay, Philippines. Finally, he rounded out his Marine service in Public Affairs at Marine Headquarters, Pentagon. Even with all his honors and experience, he spoke more often about his love for his wife, his children, his extended family, and his profound faith than anything else.
No matter what had occurred during a school day, I could count on Lt. Col. Huston to end my day with a smile. On days I was down, from lack of appropriate supplies, facilities, or plain of feeling isolated and lonely, Lt. Col. Huston was there to offer a quick story and smile. I never shared with him how lonely I felt that year, but I think he knew. In fact, I am fairly certain he was responsible for ensuring that one of the Assistant principals, Mr. Lyles, invited me to his office at least twice a month for coffee to “see how I was doing.”
When I began to show an interest in running and biking as a hobby, Lt. Col. Huston encouraged me. He offered tips as he was an avid runner, running 5-6 miles at a time, several days a week. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to drive down US 23 and see Lt. Col. Houston running alongside the road in grey sweatpants and a grey sweatshirt. Fitness, he stated, was an important discipline for the mind, body, and soul.
Near the end of my first year of teaching, I shared with him that I had met man for whom I felt deep love and affection. His eyes truly shone then. From that point on, he gave me daily advice on how to make a relationship work and how to, one day, be a good parent.
“Put your spouse and children first. That is the key.”
After my first year at GCHS, Lt. Col. Huston retired, but he would regularly drop by school for visits just to, “see how I was getting along.” When he learned of my engagement to my now husband of nearly 30 years, he simply smiled and said he hoped I was as blessed as he had been in the love of his wife.
June of 1989, Lt. Col. Huston honored me by making the 45-60 minute drive to attend my wedding in South Point, Ohio. He was stunning in his Marine dress blues. For a wedding present, he gave my husband and me an electric carving knife attached with a note of advice: “The words of the reckless pierce like a sword, but the words of the wise brings healing.”—Proverbs 12:18
Lt. Col. Huston recently flew, this time on eagle’s wings, to meet his Creator, on March 1 of this year. He was 85 years old.
On March 7, my husband, John, and I made the 45-60 minute drive to pay our respects to his wife, Ella Mae, of 65 years, and the rest of his family. I learned upon his retirement from GCHS, he had not stopped mentoring others. His ministry continued through service to Meal-on-Wheels, Prison Ministry at the Federal Penitentiary in Summit, Bible study groups in the Greenup Country Detention Center, Gideon’s International, and at his beloved house of worship, Green County Methodist Church.
I was blessed to have been under Lt. Col. Huston’s watchful eye, even for a short time; and based on the number of people attending his viewing—there were hundreds, if not thousands more, that could also consider their lives enriched because of this honorable man.
May Lt. Col. Huston’s wings of faith eternally fly as inspiration and example to all.