Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Paul G. Churchill, 1945-2008

Today is Veterans' Day, an especially poignant one for me as I am just now starting to come to grips with the loss of my dad, Capt. Paul G. Churchill, USAF, who passed away on Friday.

My dad was a member of the Pershing Rifles military fraternity and the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the University of Maryland. He was heavily involved in the Pershing Rifles' acclaimed drill team, and also served as unit chaplain. (Among his other duties, he would occasionally "bless" a ham sandwich for his friend David Skillman, who was widely but incorrectly assumed to be Jewish.) He married his college sweetheart, Jo Ann Grammer, at the University chapel, and I was born in January 1967. Upon his graduation later that year, Dad was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. Subsequent postings included Texas and Indiana, where my brother Greg was born. Then, in 1970, he was sent to Vietnam, assigned to the 8th Aerial Port Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon.

Vietnam, the Un-War: Where the unable lead the unwilling to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful.

—unknown graffitist at Tan Son Nhut

War has been described as "long periods of boredom interrupted by brief moments of terror", and that description would be apt for my dad's tour in Southeast Asia. He endured hot, humid weather; semi-regular rocket attacks; and a brief, accidental visit to an apparent Viet Cong depot (a story I may tell later). Then, of course, there was the separation from his young family.

Much of his time off-duty was spent keeping up contact any way he could. He recorded and mailed cassette tapes as well as letters and postcards. (Many of the latter I still have). Often, after a duty shift, he would wait in line at the comm office for hours to place a five-minute radio-relay telephone call to my mom. There was always someone else on the line, a necessity which made any sort of intimacy difficult, and the connection was not always good. Once, after several requests to "Please repeat, over," an airman at the relay station broke his silence to clarify what had been said: "She said she loves you, sir." Dad said the sentiment lost a lot in translation.

Otherwise, off-duty hours were spent in Saigon; at the officers' club, where a Filipino cover band might give Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Beatles a cruel battering; or just hanging out at the BOQ. Occasionally, there would be parties with the Australian contingent—the Yanks provided the steaks, the Aussies the beer, which represented a welcome change. Normally, the only beer available was Black Label; rumor had it that soldiers at a forward operating base once cheered the downing of a C-7 Caribou because its cargo consisted entirely of Black Label beer.

Sometime in 1970, Dad's idealism was challenged when he was ordered to supervise the loading, without paperwork, of a suspiciously unmarked black plane—his first direct contact with the reality of the secret war in Cambodia. (This would have been before the overt Cambodian Incursion, and probably represented either a ground component to the "secret war" or a preliminary operation by special-ops forces in advance of the Incursion.) His cynicism increased when he had to ship home the body of a friend killed in combat.

Dad was proud of his military service, but considered his time in Vietnam a wasted year. I'm not so sure about that. The war itself may have been a mistake, but I believe his essential decency made him a force for good and an ambassador for the American people. At a time when many servicemen treated Vietnamese people with suspicion and contempt, and ethnic slurs were applied to enemies and allies alike, Dad saw himself as a guest in Vietnam and treated its citizens accordingly. He and some friends stocked a refrigerator in the operations office with Coca-Cola and put up a sign: "Cokes 25 cents, or 10 dong for our Vietnamese friends." (I may have the conversion backwards; it might have been 10 cents and 25 dong.) This simple gesture earned him the respect and friendship of the Vietnamese civilians working there, and set an example for the men of his command.

For a recent birthday, our family gave Dad a Pendleton blanket entitled "Grateful Nation" in recognition of his service to country. In my mind, this includes not just his time in the Air Force (even after Vietnam, he kept his name on the rolls of the inactive reserves in case he was needed in uniform once again) but also his subsequent career as a teacher and his life as a true family man. As my brother and I today began the long and difficult task of sorting through his belongings—a task that could take months, as Dad was both a collector and a packrat; I once told him that when I thought about clearing out his house, I prayed I would go first—this was one of the first items I secured. Another: the Akubra hat with RAAF insignia given to Dad by an Australian officer in Vietnam in a gesture of friendship and solidarity.

If you have the chance, or can make a chance, thank a veteran today. Or anytime. I'll likely be on hiatus a few more days at least, but I'll get back online when I can. Peace to all.

Update: More on Dad from The Baker Street Blog, The Baltimore Sun, and The Carroll County Times.


Matt Mullenix said...

A wonderful tribute. Thanks for sharing that.

David Ephross said...

I knew your Dad when I had him as a teacher at Longfellow in a combined 3rd/4th grade class in 1977(!). I remember his humor,his zip up short boots-I was a lot lower to the ground then. The most lasting memory is of his cartoons! I am a teacher in Brooklyn,NY and draw pictures for the kids. My drawing are terrible compared to his,but...it's a tribute. Long live Joe Dokes!
David Ephross

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Keep up the good work sir....

lrcalia said...

My sincere condolences to you and your family. I'm another former student of your father's and had the unique privilege of being a student of his (along w/ David Ephross) in 3rd grade, and then being a student of his for Latin in high school, and then working with him for a few summers while in college at the State Gifted & Talented Center for Math and Technology in Westminster. So I kind of grew up under your father's tutelage. He taught with such enthusiasm, intelligence, humor, creativity, and great respect for his pupils. We all loved him for it. We all share in your loss. His contribution to so many lives has been profound. We will miss him.

Andy Solberg said...

I was a friend of your dad's since 1995 through the Sherlockian community. Not many of us can claim to be as much loved as he was. Losing Paul is a terrible loss to us all. Not only was he among the nicest people we will ever meet, but his transparency about the joy he found in you and your brother, the way he was able to acquire Sherlockian artifacts, brainstorms that came to him, the illustrations he did, the roles he portrayed, and other daily joys was just wonderful for us to watch. I will personally miss Paul terribly, and he will never be forgotten.
Andy Solberg

Anonymous said...

Syzygy is the shortest English word containing three y's. It is also the second-longest common English word containing neither a, e, i, o, nor u, being tied with rhythm. (The longest common word with this characteristic is rhythms, although it is beaten handily by the archaic word twyndyllyngs.)

Your dad was a good man.

M. Comito said...

Thank you for writing this. I had the pleasure of working with your father at Centennial my first year of teaching. He was an amazing man-- the world has lost a true genius. My condolences to you and your family.

jcsherwood1950 said...

I, too, am from the Sherlockian community, and after I moved to the East Coast from Michigan, Paul became my best Sherlockian friend. I was persistently uplifted by his enthusiasm, expertise, humanity and downright decency. Now that I have read your comments, Mark, I feel that I have learned about an even deeper, more profound part of him. Thank you for telling us about that part of your father's life, and honoring him in such a superb fashion.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Churchill was my teacher during fourth grade during that last year that he taught at Longfellow elementary school.
He was one of my two favorite teachers during my 12 years of scooling, before college. The other was Mrs. Robin Norton, from 11th grade english class.
I still possess a poster he gave me as a prize at the end of the year. It was awarded becuse I laughed at more of his jokes than any other kid in the class. The poster was of a character that he used to draw named "Joe Dokes." Dokes was the butt of most of the jokes, and was a bit of a beloved moron. The poster had hung in the room all year. It was quite a prize.
I also still possess a prize he gave me on another occasion. It is a pen drawing he made of a B-52 "Hustler" bomber.
Goodbye Mr. Churchill and thanks for the memories.

Kirk Goolsby
Warrenton, VA

Rod McCaslin said...

Hello Mark,
Your father was a remarkeable and many sided talent- a true renaissance man. I knew of his skill and enthusiasm as a teacher, of his devotion to your mother, his gift as an artist, and ,of course, his contribution to Sherlockiana. I also knew of his service in Vietnam, and I heard several of his stories about his time in the military. But, you know it was a mark of his humility, despite all his accomplishments he never mentioned that he was an officer. I always assumed he was an enlisted man.
Paul was truly a great man with the common touch.

Remchick said...

I've been lurking and reading your post and all the comments, unable to put into words how I'm feeling. Everyone posting here seems to have known different aspects and pieces of Paul: Syzygy, military man, Sherlock Holmes, teacher, Latin aficionado, MASH fan, the famed three line drawings- he was so many things to so many people. As I think back over the length of time I knew Paul, all of my memories with Paul are happy ones. He was a true family man and his kind spirit, words and deeds will be sorely missed.

Hug those near and dear to you today.

Time stands still best in moments that look suspiciously like ordinary life. ~Brian Andreas

Anonymous said...

Your dad taught me Latin at centennial High School in the late 80s, and was one of my most favorite teachers. His laughter echoed through the halls nearly every day, and I can still see his infectious smile. He was a true "teacher" in every sense of the word and I was so lucky to have know him and to have been taught by him.
Until I read the other comments, I had forgotten all about "Joe Dokes" and how he always drew him. Such great memories.
My condolences to you and your family...and I am so sad for the loss to students all over the Longfellow and Centennial communities...
Michael Epstein
CHS 1988

Micheal said...

Hello Mark,
My deepest regret and condolences on your dad's passing. Your Dad taught me Latin all four years in high school. Absolutely the best teacher I have ever had. I am now studying Classics (especially Latin) in college and looking at a career as a Latin teacher--your father inspired me to continue my study. I feel blessed and honored to have learnt Latin from your dad--he infused all his lessons with humor, and treated all his students with kindness, and was universally admired , respected, and liked. I kept in touch with him after I left high school, and he has been a source of encouragement in my studies and life in general.

He will be missed,

Mike Fasulo

April Curnow said...

What a fine tribute to your father, and to veterans everywhere. I met Paul a little over two years ago through Watson's Tin Box, the Sherlockian society he co-founded. Gracious, funny, exceptional in his ability to give of himself, he was like a glowing fire that cheered and warmed us all. We've lost a very dear friend.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mark,

I knew your dad both at Longfellow Elementary and Centennial High School. The fact that his spirit and personality looms large in my memory even though I was never technically in his class is a testament to who he was. I recall his humor, creativity, and patience with all of us. He will never be forgotten and we were all blessed to have known him in the course of our lives.

Sarah Lyman Kravits
Longfellow '77
Centennial '84

Sheryn said...

Dear Mark,
I taught with your Dad at Centennial High School. He was a wonderful man -- he gave and gave to all -- and we are all better for having known him. I remember his gentleness, his good nature, his love for your mother and for his sons; and I remember his dedication to students and to teaching. There is a great deal to love about Paul. We all did. I hope to meet you some day when I'm back visiting.
Sherry Wright

lrcalia said...

Si requiris monumentum, circumspice. Once again, even in death, the magister magnus (he'd chide me about which meaning of magnus I'm using), gives us guidance. In a eulogy he wrote for his close friend, Steve Clarkson, he wrote/ said, "In fact he still lives on in the people with whom he came in contact, in you and in me and in the thousands of people around the world who met him and knew him, in person or on the net or in his books. He has changed us and will continue to live on in us. Si requiris monumentum, circumspice: If you seek a monument, look about you. WE are the monument, the legacy which he has left behind, and we will remember him. Rest in peace, my friend."

Thank you Paul. The many postings here are just a hint as to the legacy you left behind. I hope you knew how much you were loved. I will forever carry you in my heart.

To his family, fellow Sherlockians, and pupils, my condolences to you all for this profound loss, but also hooray for us all for having had the pleasure of having him in our lives and hooray for the gifts he generously bestowed on us all.

Lauren Calia
Alumna of Longfellow Elementary, Centennial High School, and the Center for Math & Technology.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mark,

I had the privilege of learning cartooning from your father while at Longfellow, and delighted in his sense of humor and fun, his distinctive style on the "four-square" court, and enjoyment of our class-wide "Jeopardy!" games. As a Latin student during my junior and senior years at Centennial, I benefited from your father's love of teaching, sage career advice (which incorporated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and to which I've returned to more than once), clever wit, and his openness to guide and provoke but also learn from young minds. Clearly, he was doing in life what he should have been doing. I'm sorry that his journey isn't continuing.

My deepest condolences to you and your family,
Edmund Weisberg

Anonymous said...

Your dad taught me a very valuable life lesson that I carry with me on a daily basis. I only met him a handful of times, but I had and continue to have, a vast amount of respect for him. Oddly enough (or perhaps, knowing Paul, not so oddly) the life lesson he taught me came from a joke he told. The ethers of time have fogged my memory so that I'm not completely sure where this story takes place, but it was probably Fred and Katie's kitchen during a game of Syzygy. The tale your father told was beautifully wound as all of his yarns were and concerned a man your father had known some years ago in Baltimore.

This acquaintance of Paul's had a very successful life and was on the fast track with his career when tragedy, in the form of an MTA Bus, struck. The poor fellow lost a leg following the incident. A couple of years went by and the man began to recover from the sudden loss of an appendage he had been so attached to (this line should have been my first clue that I was being had, but such was your father's ability to tell a story that I simply ground the hook into my mouth a bit deeper and swam towards the reel) when, incredibly, he was struck by the same MTA bus. This time the man lost not only his exceptionally expensive prosthetic leg that he had only just become comfortable walking on, but he also lost his incalculably valuable organic leg as well!Your dad's friend sank into a terrible depression. Gone were the days when he could hike in the park or walk his dog. His life was void of a certain type of confidence and freedom those that are born with working limbs know. All of it taken by the Maryland Transit Administration. After much thought and careful consideration he decided to consult with an attorney. In his mind the MTA had stolen his life, had practically committed murder, or at the very least manslaughter, and there was absolutely no reason that he should not receive some renumeration, some small pittance, some token of sorrow for the grievances he had suffered at the hands of this terrible government body. He phoned a competent and trustworthy attorney he knew and arranged a meeting. During the meeting the lawyer asked your father's friend to tell him the exact details of his complaint, and to what degree his life had been altered. Hours went by as he explained in heart-wrenching detail all of the woes that had befallen him as a result of the incident. His long time girlfriend and jogging partner had left him, his company fired him after a horrible incident with an escalator, he had to declare bankruptcy due to the massive piles of medical bills. His life had been ruined. The lawyer stared at Paul's friend for several minutes before speaking. Finally he said, “I'm sorry sir, I just don't think we have a case here.”
Very calmly the lawyer replied, “I'm sorry sir, you just don't have a leg to stand on.”

It took a full beat for me to realize what had just happened. So drawn into this story was I that my mind refused to acknowledge the joke and instead tried to figure out why the lawyer thought this wasn't a winnable case. Of course, the light bulb over my head came flashing on a second or two later and I had a laugh that left my sides in pain for a day or two afterward. I was stunned. I had not expected a joke, I was listening to a poignant and sad tale of injustice and probable government neglect. There were no indicators that I was being lead astray, not a crack of a smile nor hastily thrown glance. There was only sheer commitment to the story and the punch line that would knock the audience dead. That, of course, is the lesson. Sometimes, no matter how easy it would be to give up or give in, no matter how much you want to let go, you've got to find the resolve and personal commitment to get the job done. I've applied this to the comedy I perform on occasion, to my career in the Logistics and Distribution field, to training my dog to respond to unspoken commands, and countless other aspects of my three decade old life. Your father was one Hell of a good man, a great American, and a brilliant storyteller. I am deeply sorry for your loss.

Sincerely Yours,

Kathy Baer said...

Your father and I taught at Centennial High for years, and like others who commented before me, I found him to have the "twinkle" of a man who is in on the joke of being a mere mortal.

He and I were born in the same year and graduated from high school in the same year. That gave us touchstones from which we could communicate without actually talking.

Almost every conversation between us involved laughter.

The one big exception was the conversation we began after I discovered my husband was dying from prostate cancer. (Cruel that this would become another tie between us.) During several long talks - one in a CHS hallway where classes changed more than once while we shared and shared and shared - I asked him how he dealt with losing a spouse over a long time period.

He told me something I'll never forget. He said, "You see that train coming down the track, and you watch it coming, coming, coming, for a long time, but when it finally gets there, it's still YIPES!"

I still marvel at the struggle Paul faced while your mother had Lou Gehrig's disease.

Your father gave me courage and he always gave me something to smile about.

He would want all of us to remember the words of Dr. Seuss:
"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."

Bravo to you, Mark.

Kathy Baer, English teacher

Ann Forno said...

Hi Mark,
I was so sorry to hear about your dad's death, and even sorrier that I couldn't come to the memorial service. Your dad was my teacher for 3rd and 4th grades, and then at Centennial, I took one year of Latin with him and was his aide during my senior year. He also visited me when I was living in London. It's so hard to put into words what he was like as a teacher, but I think his BEST quality was that he was as much himself in the classroom as outside of it, and that's a rare gift to give your students. There's so much that goes on in education that's not as it should be, but his way of dealing with that seemed to be to be good and do good anyway. What an amazing spirit he had. What an amazing person.

I drank a Coke in his honor at 1:00 on November 15.

I will strive to bring some of what he gave me, to my own classroom.

Please express my sympathies to Greg, too.

Kindest regards,
Ann Forno

Anonymous said...

Hi--this is Tony Porco, another former student/aide of Paul Churchill's in both high school and elementary school; you may remember meeting me at the funeral. I recently came across my one copy of your Dad's "Joe Doakes" drawing, which he did at my request the last time I saw him (in 1990). My own (inferior) version is next to his. Here is the address:


I'm working on an essay about my experiences with Mr. Churchill; I'll post a link when it's done.

Tony Porco (Centennial Class of 1986)

dsm said...

My belated sympathies about the loss of your father. He was my teacher in 4th/5th grade, and I kept up with him for another 15 years. My wife (a teacher) and I were talking about how you never forgot a great teacher and it prompted me to google your father. I am saddened that he passed away but very grateful to you for posting the news and tribute to his life. He shaped the lives of many people, including my own.

David Meale

blakenan said...

As an alum of both Centennial High and the Maryland Summer Center for Gifted and Talented, I had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with Mr. Churchill (as I knew him). Even almost 20 years later I remember time spent with your dad vividly and fondly. His true joy for life, love of learning and humor made him an inspiration to be around. I remember your dad writing the declaration of independence backwards with one hand while drawing a famous "joe dokes" comic with the other hand. I remember the multi-lingual puns that were truly hilarious ("semper ubi, sub ubi). I remember the rides in his 1904 Olds at Western Maryland College. Most of all I remember a man who I strive to emulate. He may be gone, but he is clearly not forgotten.

Larry said...

I am so sorry to be so late to learn of your father's passing.You may remember me from visiting with you over the years after Paul and I came back from Viet Nam. We were at TSN together and I could tell a million stories about your dad and his wonderful sense of humor...he was my best friend from the war. I spent the week end with you the week your mother was diagnosed with ALS and visited her and you boys several times over the next few years including near the end. I am mourning your father and send you my most sincere, albeit belated, condolences. Please email me at lrm57701@yahoo.com. Larry Mayes, Colonel, USAF (Retired)