Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Col. Teague Gray Harris, Jr.



It was the end of an era last Thursday when we said goodbye to my father-in-law, Colonel Teague Gray Harris, Jr., who died thirteen days short of his 100th birthday. It was a beautiful day in San Antonio. The ceremony was led by the Rev. Stanford Adams of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin. The Colonel's grandchildren read from his bible, and sharp, young members of the honor guard detail at Fort Sam Houston performed the military rites. 

I was honored to deliver the eulogy:


Good Morning,

I am Dragana Arežina Harris, and I have been fortunate to know my father-in-law, Teague Gray Harris, Jr, fondly known as “Bucky” to many of his peers, for most of my adult life. We called him Colonel out of deep respect for his history, sacrifice, patriotism, and principles by which he led his life.

 The Colonel was born on a farm in South Carolina on August 17, 1919, one hundred years ago, during the post WWI recession. The middle child of a school teacher and a cotton farmer, he learned good old Southern principles of hard work, frugality, and honesty at an early age.

 Although the Colonel’s entrance into military service was somewhat serendipitous, once hooked, he embraced it completely. He was appointed to West Point by a US senator. It was an honor that he didn’t take seriously at first, until he went on a blind date who was quite impressed, and she urged him to go. He graduated from the United States Military Academy West Point in June 1943, after which he served as a B-24 pilot with the 458th Bomber Group, Eighth Air Force in Horsham St. Faith Air Base in East Anglia, England. 

 The Colonel became an accomplished pilot during World War II, and during the return from his eleventh mission, his plane, named Bomb Totin’ Mama, was shot down over England. Half of his crew was killed in the crash and he was assumed dead at first and placed in the morgue. He was found alive the following morning, and over the next year he recovered from a broken back and third-degree burns. He continued to serve the Air Force and retired after 30 years, but not before earning several military honors: Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Air Force Commendation Medal. His heroism exemplifies America’s Greatest Generation.

 He married the love of his life, Mary Virginia Grant, and together for 64 years, they raised two admirable sons, traveled the world in a military capacity, represented the United States Air Force in exemplary fashion, and always honored their humble roots and family.

 Colonel Harris lived a life of great discipline and made sure that his sons, Teague and John, did so too. The young boys were always buzz cut. When he became commander of the base near Athens in the early 70’s, he rigorously enforced the rules, much to the younger generation’s dismay. Letters of reprimand crossed the Atlantic from Greece to Houston, when my husband, Teague, then a freshman at Rice University, let his hair grow below his shirt collar. Many years later, now a resident of Austin, the Colonel finally embraced his younger son John’s ponytail, but not before many heated debates.

 As an immigrant to the US, the Colonel and Mrs. Harris taught me about their Southern culture and traditions. These included elaborate Thanksgiving dinners in South Carolina and San Antonio, when the Colonel always carved the turkey with great pride. He loved biscuits, experimenting with sourdough, and grits. He ate bacon for breakfast almost every day, and fried chicken for Sunday dinner. Pralines and boiled peanuts were also high on his list. His BLT’s with homegrown tomatoes, “pimmena” cheese sandwiches, and pickled peaches became my favorites, partly because we both love to eat, and the Colonel taught me to love it all.

 The Colonel underwent a ‘softening’ in character when Susan and I joined the family, and even more when he became a grandfather to Alex, Emilia and Haley. They loved listening to his personal accounts of WWII and spending time with him on the Harris ranch near Lometa. During one trip when they were still very young, the Colonel lined them and their cousins up and taught them to click their heels and salute him whenever he passed by.

 The ranch is where he taught Haley how to whittle, and later, it became a place of gathering during opening weekend for deer hunting, where he provided the steaks and managed to wrangle the younger generation during heated political discussions. It was the Col’s way or the highway, and no one dared sit in his recliner as the repercussions would be dire. My son, Alex, who attended these manly weekends when he was old enough, remembers that “grandpa always had my back”, especially during poker games against his wily opponents.

 The Colonel loved woodworking. He crafted many cherished pieces of furniture for our homes, and he didn’t forget his grandchildren - a rocking horse that Haley named Bucky Buckaroo, Santa’s reindeer, beds and other furniture for Emilia and Haley’s American Girl dolls, and a solid wooden car and train set for Alex. He loved the challenge of do-it-yourself repairs and excelled at it. He loved restoring old furniture and making clocks.  

 There’s another side to the Colonel though: when I asked my daughter, Emilia, to describe her grandfather, the first words that came to her mind were “trouble-maker”. She recalls her grandpa telling them a story about an incident during his childhood in Greystone. He was put in a closet as punishment whereupon he preceded to wreak havoc by climbing to the top shelf and throwing things to the floor. He recalls, “They thought they were teaching me a lesson, meanwhile, it was I who was teaching them a lesson!”

 The Colonel recently revealed that during his flight training near Smyrna, Tennessee, he and a fellow pilot secretly commanded a plane and took a couple of young ladies for an illegal spin over the town. He said, “I wouldn’t qualify as an angel. I haven’t done anything bad, but I like to stir things up!” More recently, I found him chasing unsuspecting staff in his scooter down the hallway in the retirement home. He claimed many times that he was living among old folks, one of which he was not.

 The Colonel was always dedicated to his family and upon retirement, he and Mrs. Harris moved back to Greenville, South Carolina, where they lovingly took care of their parents until their deaths. In Austin, this devotion was once again evident when he cared for Mrs. Harris with much passion and intensity. I saw that same incredible devotion in the way that John and Susan, whom I have called Saint Susan many times, cared for the Colonel in his last years. My husband, Teague, and the Colonel spent many times on the road in search of the best barbecue, at the same time admiring county courthouses in the Hill Country along the way.

 The Colonel had a voice of authority, and we remember many strongly worded letters to AT&T and the homeowner’s association. Many years ago, during a friendly argument when I disagreed with him, he told me to “get back on the boat”. I was taken aback at first, but soon realized he said it in jest. He created a t-shirt especially for me to emphasize his point – a boat on the front with “get back on the boat”, and on the back it reads “Just kidding, you’re a keeper!” I will treasure that t-shirt always.

 The Colonel’s goal in the last few years was to make it to 100. His will to live was so strong that he underwent two surgeries to repair broken legs – always with a positive attitude and little complaint. In the end, his physical being was greatly diminished, but his mind and his presence were considerable. Where I come from, one turns the age of your birthday on January 1st, so Colonel, in keeping with Serbian reason, you made it!





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