Human beings are amazing creatures when you stop to think about it. Our behavior is often amusing, sometimes amazing and always has a consistent quality of inconsistency about it. We don’t like pain yet often seek out activities that we know will cause pain and discomfort. We all want to be happy yet regularly act in ways that all but guarantee we’ll be miserable. And of course we all know we’re going to die yet spend most of our lives desperately trying not to think about it.
It’s that last one I want to talk a bit about today because, just over a week ago from the date I’m writing this, a friend of mine died. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the news (there’s another foible for you), after all he was 98 years old. Still, it took me by surprise and made me very sad.
His name was Bob Maxwell. He had been a snowbird in Arizona for years and, when here, was active in my church, which is how I got to know him. At the time of his death he was also the oldest living Medal of Honor winner, which is why some of you may have heard about him.
Bob was an amazing man and in many ways typical of his generation. His grandfather was a Quaker and therefore a pacifist. Bob was raised to respect life and didn’t want to join the military. But after Pearl Harbor he felt he needed to serve his country and did so. He went through basic training like so many others and was trained how to use his rifle. Yet he ended up in a non-combat position as a “wire man.”
He ended up serving in the famous 3rd Infantry Division (famous for how quickly their commander, General Truscott, made them march. They called it the “Truscott Trot.”). Although he served mostly behind the lines stringing wire to keep all the HQs in communication with each other, he was wounded on the beaches of Anzio and spent months in the hospital. Upon his release he returned to his duties.
The 3rd Infantry was part of Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France on August 15th 1944. They advanced rapidly and on the night of September 7th some Germans got behind the American lines and attacked the farmhouse where Bob’s battalion HQ was located. It was a night fight and Bob used his .45 pistol in defense. At one point a German grenade landed near him and the other men, so Bob grabbed a blanket and jumped onto the grenade to save his buddies.
Amazingly, he survived.
During the Second World War, and since then as well, a lot of brave guys have done this. Most did not survive. But Bob did. He was seriously wounded but made it and on May 12th, 1945 he was awarded our nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, at Camp Carson Convalescent Hospital in Colorado.
Bob was released from hospital and went on to live a fairly quiet life. He became an auto mechanic and was quite good at it. He ran a service shop, taught auto shop at a local community college in Bend and finally got his High School Diploma in the year 2000!
He was a good enough mechanic to talk me through repairing the Jeep I owned at the time. It was part of the electrical system and of course I knew nothing about it. But he said I could do it so I bought the part and borrowed a garage floor and tools from a friend. I lay under the jeep and he stood by with our friend telling me what to do and laughing at just how bad I was at doing it. He also arranged for me to be shocked once or twice just to teach me a lesson!
Yes, Bob had a sense of humor, to be sure. But that wasn’t what struck other people most about him. And no, his being a Medal of Honor winner wasn’t it either. Bob had one overriding characteristic that everyone I know who knew him always remarked upon.
That was his humility.
He was one of the most genuinely humble men I’ve never known. Maybe he was born that way; certainly he was taught humility by his Quaker grandfather. And of course, his strong Christian faith told him to walk humbly before God and man.
But I believe he was also taught humility by the Medal of Honor he wore. He once said that he felt a heavy weight when he wore it. And like all Medal of Honor winners I’ve had the privilege of speaking with, Bob readily acknowledged he carried that medal for all his comrades in arms who never got to come home. He knew that receiving the Medal of Honor made him a representative of all those, living and dead, who have sacrificed to keep us free.
We don’t hear much about humility today. In fact I don’t think most people even understand what it is. Far from weakness, authentic humility flows from an inner strength that most of us lack. In this culture of branding, promotion, self-esteem and looking out for Number One, Bob stood as a welcome and profound contrast.
How shallow all our efforts at selfism are in the face of one truly humble man. I hope I can become strong enough to be more like Bob Maxwell. And I hope against hope that perhaps in time our culture can learn the lesson of humility from him as well.
Farewell to a true, strong and humble hero, Bob Maxwell – you are missed.
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Louie Marsh is pastor of Christ’s Church on the River on the Parker Strip. Visit his website HERE.