Reflecting on his childhood, Brigadier General Dean Carlton DuBois, Sr. recalled his mother’s quip: “You look like you’re full of enthusiastics.” Though he remembered the phrase as awkwardly charming, it would define his character, even in the darkest days prior to his death.
DuBois, 79, passed away last Monday. He was one of 16.1 million American veterans of World War II. Only 3.5 million are still with us, and we are losing them at a rate of well over 1,000 each day.
DuBois had been in failing health for some time. But for the past year he had been sick with many increasingly painful and debilitating medical problems; one problem compounding the severity of the others. He knew he was going to die, and soon. But that did not prevent him from celebrating every day as if it were a single collection of little soul-stirring phenomena. It’s how he approached nearly every particular of his entire life, every smile, every kind word, every piece of chocolate cake, every magazine article he clipped for someone to read, every trinket he had for a visiting child. Everything filled him with “enthusiastics.”
Though it may sound trite, even corny, to many of us in the 21st Century, where serving others and appreciating the beauty found in simplicity often take a back seat to self-serving instant-gratification and materialism, DuBois and others of his generation lived – and still live – to serve their fellow man. It’s why they have been so successful in work and life. To them life is not “all about me” cloaked in some radical cause, pretending to care about the world in order to define oneself: It’s about work, sacrifice, and getting something out of life only after you’ve put a lot into it: A concept that is beginning to sound odd in an age of entitlement.
Tom Brokaw called them the “Greatest Generation,” because the members of that generation were committed to real selfless causes that saved and bettered the world: Defeating fascism in World War II and Communism in the Cold War, building modern America, ending Jim Crow racism, venturing into space, putting a man on the moon, germinating the ideas that would lead to the Internet and the endless applications of computer technologies, raising families and sending their kids to college in record numbers (something many of the Greatest Gen did not have the opportunity to do themselves), and asking little-to-nothing in return. It was after all, a member of DuBois’ generation, President John F. Kennedy, who implored future generations to “Ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country.”
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, DuBois was the 15-year-old son of a Gulfport, Mississippi firefighter. He was too young for military service. But on that very afternoon, he and best pal Bobby Finley walked two miles to the local movie house and discussed what they could do for their country.
"We both said we were going Navy!" he told me on Pearl Harbor Day 2005. After all, sailors had suffered the heaviest losses in the sneak attack.
In just under three years, DuBois found himself a 17-year-old sonarman aboard a destroyer hunting Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. As if that wasn't exciting enough, in late 1944 he volunteered for the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) – forerunners of the 21st-century Navy SEALs.
“I saw something about frogmen in Life magazine, and I thought, ‘Now that’s what I should do,’” he said.
UDT would have been a perfect fit for a competitor like DuBois, who would go on to swim and box at the University of Mississippi. But the war was winding down by the time his application was reviewed. His request was denied.
Soon after the Korean War erupted in 1950, DuBois was recalled to active duty. He was then commissioned in the Mississippi National Guard, and later transferred to the Army Reserve where he served for 26 years before retiring as a colonel. He served an additional six-years with the South Carolina State Guard (a National Guard auxiliary) as brigadier general. Along the way, he earned degrees in journalism and law, married and started a family, wrote for United Press International, served as president of Travel Inns of America, served as publisher of Holiday Inn magazine, founded a public relations firm, authored a handful of books, and once met Nobel-prize winning novelist William Faulkner.
“He [Faulkner] was coming out of the post office and I was going in,” laughed DuBois.
Laughter is what truly defined DuBois. A self-proclaimed M.D. (Mirth Doctor), DuBois made it a point to help others laugh, at least smile, no matter their situation. He even made light of the last weeks of his life, though fully aware of the gravity of his condition.
In one instance, awakening from a medicated, semi-hallucinatory state while in the intensive-care unit, he managed a smile and said to me, “My boy, I think I’m going to become a fiction writer.”
I asked, why?
“Because you would not believe the things I’ve been imagining up in here,” he chuckled.
DuBois always said, “Expect little and give much.” That he did, in every community he ever lived and worked: Organizing Jaycees, serving in Rotary, presiding over Easter Seal chapters and local chambers of commerce, and leading Sunday School classes. He always had a joke or a funny story to share, and he could quote the Ten Commandments, the Boy Scout Oath, and the 12 Scout Laws verbatim.
DuBois also had a soldier’s heart: After all, he was one. He loved, respected, and appreciated all men and women in uniform. He supported our military efforts around the world, but always with stark consideration for the 18-year-old rifleman beneath the body armor. A few weeks ago, when I told him several friends with the American Society of Journalists & Authors were sending Girl Scout cookies to soldiers and Marines in Iraq, he leaned back in his wheelchair, looked above, smiled and said, “Girl Scout cookies: Now that is a little touch of home.”
This past St. Patrick’s Day – a few days out of the hospital and a few days from going back in for the last time – DuBois wheeled himself down the hallway to a party at the nursing facility in Columbia, S.C. where he lived. He was dressed in green, with green shamrock stickers on his shirt. He was in pain, but he smiled and went anyway. Those of us fortunate to have known him understood that act to be a reflection of his life-philosophy.
I thought about that philosophy listening to the sharp crack of the soldiers' rifles as my friend was buried. “Live life fully and simply,” he would often say. Then paraphrasing Will Rogers, he would add, “Never be afraid to go out on a limb, because that’s where you’ll find the fruit.”
Though I’m not of DuBois’ generation, I am truly a better man for having shared some life with him. One of the last bits of sage advice he gave me with a wink and a smile: “Go ye therefore and hit ‘em a lick! And help somebody along the way.”