The Custodians

 

“He was a hard worker, but I don’t think anybody had an idea that he was a multi-millionaire.”

 

Ronald Read was the first in his family to earn a diploma. According to his obituary in the Brattleboro Reformer, he “was so determined to finish high school that he walked and hitchhiked into Brattleboro every day until he graduated in 1940.” It was a two hour walk each way.

After serving in World War II, Mr. Read worked at a gas station, then as a janitor at J.C. Penney. He read the Wall Street Journal every day, and – with frugality and investing acumen – amassed a fortune of over $8 million. He left most of it to a hospital, and to the local library, where he’d been a regular.

 

 

Mr. Jones was 47 and working nights as a janitor in a Lacey, Wash., high school when he mailed, unsolicited, a fictionalized Vietnam War story to The New Yorker.

 

After Thom Jones completed his nightly custodial duties, he’d read in the school library.

He had served in the Marines, where he’d been badly injured during a boxing match. This injury prevented his deployment, but probably saved his life: almost all of the other Marines in his unit were killed.

As his New York Times obituary notes, Mr. Jones brought a boxer’s sensibility to writing:

“For me it was easy: Produce text that was so good, an editor could not reject it,” he said. “If I couldn’t do that, I had no business whining about anything. Show or go. It’s Darwinian and it’s fair.”

The story he sent to the The New Yorker won the 1993 O. Henry Award.

 

The Imaginers

 

“Can you imagine?” Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani was fond of saying, her voice rising in delight.

 

Lamia al-Gailani was the first Iraqi woman to study archaeology abroad. One of her specialties was the ancient cylinder seals used to write in clay. For the National Museum’s opening in 1966, she used them herself to create the display.

According to her National Public Radio obituary, “Gailani even referred to the Sumerians of ancient Iraq as ‘we,’ often before catching herself and laughing.”

During the US invasion in 2003, over 5,000 cylinder seals were looted from the National Museum. Gailani returned to her home country to help rebuild the institution. She found “stunned staff wandering the hallways … Gailani told them to snap of of it and get to work.”

The museum officially reopened to the public in 2015. Most of the stolen artifacts remain unreturned.

 

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She was working night after night, essentially living in the drawings that flowed from her pen in an apparently unstoppable flood. They conjured up glimpses of a world she had imagined but which did not, as yet, exist.

 

In addition to writing, the Sumerians developed architecture. The work of Zaha Hadid, who was born in Iraq, reflected a 21st-century vision as well as respect for tradition:

Hadid belonged to the last generation of architects to work with tracing paper and T-squares. She talked about the care with which she would use a Rotring pen and a ruler to draw. The trick, she said, was to ensure that there was no overlap when she joined two lines to make a sharp point at the corner of a rectangle.

Hadid was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession’s equivalent of the Nobel. As her Guardian obituary recounts:

Hadid was able to create one of the world’s most important architectural practices, one that, at the time of her death, was working in China, the Middle East, America and Russia. She built an extraordinary range of buildings: the Olympic Aquatics Centre in London, the Maxxi art museum in Rome … a car factory for BMW in Leipzig, Germany, a skyscraper complex in Beijing, an opera house in Guangzhou, an exhibition centre in the middle of Seoul. She was asked to work on projects from Libya to Saudi Arabia, and even on the Central Bank of Iraq.

Her Wikipedia page has photos of her projects.

 

The Aviatrices

 

“Don’t touch that plane, little girl.”

 

Millicent Young took the money she earned from farming and told her mother she was going to buy clothes. Instead, she bought flying lessons.

During World War II she flew an AT-6, towing targets for (male) pilots learning how to shoot. According to her obituary in The Gazette of Colorado Springs, “She liked to say our side shot at her.”

After victory her war effort continued, this time to gain military status for her fellow (female) pilots. Her success is all the more notable because she wasn’t otherwise unoccupied:

Millicent Young worked various jobs, parking cars at the Antlers Hotel, selling encyclopedias, even penning a food column for The Gazette … She spent more than two years working for the El Paso County Department of Human Services, being named “Working Woman of the Year” by the state in 1985.

 

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“Where’s the pilot?” someone on the ground crew asked.

“I am the pilot,” she responded.

 

Mary Ellis was shot at by her own side too, but by mistake. It was, she said – with sterling British understatement  – “not an experience I ever want to repeat.”

Her Washington Post obituary records that friendly fire, fog, the Luftwaffe, landing gear, and Nazi rockets were among her hazards ferrying Spitfires to combat pilots.

After the war, Ms. Ellis became a rally car driver. Then she (more or less) settled down:

She was thought to be the first woman to run an airport in Europe, and over the next two decades, she did everything from working the control tower to running out to shoo away sheep and wave the aircraft in toward the terminal. She even cut the grass and helped the airfield grow into a busy airport handling flights between the Isle of Wight and many mainland English cities.

 

The Businessmen

 

In 1963, Jack Dohony testified before the Baltimore City Council in favor of desegregating a local amusement park. When he arrived at work the next day, he was booed and spat at. That didn’t prevent him from continuing his work: soon his employer’s bathrooms and lunchrooms were desegregated.

As his Baltimore Sun obituary notes, he knew what was important: “John was gracious. He was always a gentleman. He used his talents for others.”

The amusement park no longer operates, but its carousel does. It’s now on the National Mall, which is where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Smithsonian Carousel by RL Bolton (via Flickr)

 

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Once, a homeless woman in Harvard Square told him her life would be better if she had a red wagon to cart redeemable bottles. She burst into tears the next day when he showed up pulling a red wagon.

 

Tom White made a fortune in the construction industry, but died with this regret: “I didn’t have more money to give away.”

Mr. White helped found Partners in Health, a global public health charity. “No matter where he was,” a co-founder said, “every morning he would wake up and start his day thinking about the suffering of the poor.”

A family receives medical attention at one of PIH’s Port-au-Prince-based clinics after the 2010 earthquake, CJ Madson (via Wikipedia)

 

According to his Boston Globe obituary, Mr. White “set out to die as close to penniless as possible.” He got there at age 90, having given away over $75 million.

 

The Veterans

 

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“This is an historic day,” he told the Washington Post, after handing one of the last remaining U.S. soldiers a goodbye package that included Ho Chi Minh postcards and a bamboo scroll painting. “It is the first time in 100 years that there are no foreign troops on the soil of Vietnam.”

 

Colonel Bui Tin went to Saigon in 1973 to verify the departure of the last American combat troops. Two years later he returned, this time in combat, to the presidential palace.

It had been a long struggle for Col. Tin. He had fought against the French, who wounded him at Dien Bien Phu. After they left, he fought the next foreigners. When they left, he continued fighting. According to his Washington Post obituary, upon accepting South Vietnam’s surrender he proclaimed:

Between the Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.

 

Col. Tin later grew disillusioned with his government and became a harsh critic. In 1990 he sought exile in France, where he died this year.

 

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When Beilke started up the ramp, a North Vietnamese colonel stepped forward and presented him with a gift – a straw place mat decorated with the picture of a pagoda.

Master Sergeant Max Beilke  was, officially, the last American combat soldier to leave Vietnam. He had gone there to help conclude what was, up to then, America’s longest war.

Beilke [was] a quiet, friendly man who never talked about his military experience. The kind of man who loved his flower beds and flourishing crepe myrtles, who audited the books of the homeowners association for free … The kind who kept doing so even after the association turned down his request to put a flagpole by the driveway.

 

After his retirement from the Army – he’d been drafted during the Korean War – he continued his service, helping other veterans. He was working in the Pentagon when he became one of the first to die in America’s longest war.

 

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Below is a television interview with Master Sgt. Beilke upon his departure. Col. Tin can be seen toward the end.