On Thursday I had the honor of speaking at my Uncle Bill’s funeral service. Below are the remarks I prepared. While I did deviate a bit from the prepared remarks – they are fairly close to what was presented.
A Lifetime of Service
Billie Haltom’s life was one of service – service to his family and friends, to the people of the world, to his business associates, and his heroic service to his country. From his childhood in Melrose to his service as a Lieutenant Colonel in the nations Air Force, Billie served his fellow citizens.
Billie’s service to the community took many forms and was something he learned growing up in with the people of Melrose and Nacogdoches County.
Even though his dream was to be laid to rest with him military brethren in Arlington National Cemetery, Billy was very concerned with the care and maintenance of the Melrose Cemetery, where his parents and a sister, and his brother-in-law (and my father) Sam Dunn are memorialized. He wanted to make sure that the plans were made for the long term care of the property, working with his former teacher Lois Dyes to set up a perpetual fund for care.
Billie also served the global community. As one of the senior members of the United States State Department USAID program in Vietnam, Billie was responsible for programs that built roads, schools, and provided vital services to the people of the Mekong Delta.
Billie also was an astute businessman, with an eye for investment in property and an understanding of finance. He lived his conservative philosophy, investing with a goal of providing long-term for his needs and those of his family.
Billie loved family. As a young pilot, he would arrange his flights whenever possible to pass over Melrose. As his career progressed he moved from doing rolls in small single engine planes – scaring his mother Callie Haltom and causing her to be concerned for his safety – to lowering the wheels of larger aircraft signaling that he would be landing at the nearby airport and would soon be home. However, when he started flying the larger aircraft his passes over Melrose scared all the chickens and rattled the windows and doors, prompting Bunk Seale to say “You’re going to smother all my chickens – but since it’s you Billie it’s o.k.”
The Seale family always very special to Billie, because Ruby Seale dropped everything and come to live with the Haltoms to help nursed him through a severe bout with pneumonia as a child.
Billy’s youngest sister – Sue Jean – had a special place in his heart. As the baby of the family, he wanted to be sure that she had every opportunity. As a little child he drove her around in cotton trucks with him and when she was nine he gave her a blue bicycle. Their mother said that “He was both a mother and father to her.”
Billie was a hero whose country held a special place in heart. His Air Force service spanned a twenty year period and his military decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters and the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters. As a leader he had the greatest concern for the men who served with him.
When my wife Rebecca and I lived in Abilene, Billie’s old unit held their reunion there. Billie was unable to attend, but he asked us to attend in his place. The evening we spent with the surviving members of his crew is among the greatest honors I have ever received in my life. Hearing those great men speak of my uncle as a leader and an inspiration to them was a humbling experience. His experiences after being shot down over France and evading capture not only led his own men to safety, but through his training of others in escape and evasion techniques likely saved many more he never knew of.
His heroic service in wartime – both in the European and Pacific theatre – is paired with exceptional peacetime service. He served as a leader in expanding the boundaries of flight; first as a test pilot and later as the Chief of Flight Test Operations in several assignments.
So how to describe the life of a man whose life was so full and whose love encompassed so many people? How does one give honor to a man who sacrificed for his family, his community, others of the world, and willingly placed is own life at risk over and over for his country?
All I can express is my thanks to my uncle for his love and concern for his family, his community, and his country, and for his example of service. Thank you Uncle Bill for the love that you gave to me all my life, and thank you Lieutenant Colonel Haltom for your example of bravery, dedication, leadership and service.