'The Colonel' Made a Lasting Impact
The word "hero" gets thrown around a lot.
A ballplayer crushes a game-winning home run or breaks free for a long touchdown and they're branded a "hero."
Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth. On the other hand, Colonel Gerald F. Russell was the real thing.
The 97-year-old American hero passed away last week. A lot has been written about him since then, rightfully so, and I won't try to piggyback on all the great articles that have focused on his life.
Instead, I'll share my connection to "The Colonel," the straightforward nickname friends used to refer to Colonel Russell, who was one of the last two surviving Battalion Commanders from Iwo Jima.
First, he's easily one of the most interesting and insightful people I've ever known, and will ever know.
He was friends with presidents and the Paterno family, was a decorated military leader and world-class athlete and a local ambassador who made it his life's work to help others.
Colonel Russell also was a patient and understanding man who made time to meet with a young filmmaker years ago and talk about his life and his involvement with the Centre County United Way.
I set up my camera, pulled up a chair, and although I didn't realize it, I was about to receive the best history lesson of my life.
The Colonel answered all of my questions, and after speaking for a half-hour, I decided to end the interview. I couldn't resist, however, asking him about some of the mementos in his room. Pictures, plaques, medals: The Colonel seemed to have lived 10 lifetimes.
I left the camera running, not because this was some ploy, just because I figured I'd be leaving in a few minutes and I'd put everything away then.
Well, those few minutes turned into an extra hour. The Colonel was gracious in his time, and especially candid, too. He shared personal details of his time in Iwo Jima, including his emotions when he saw the American flag raised.
What I wouldn't give to see the expression on my face when he was telling me those stories; I can't remember at what point, but very early on, I told myself that this was going to be a conversation that I'd remember for the rest of my life.
I have everything on camera, though it's been years since I've watched those tapes.
I didn't include any of that footage in the movie I was working on, nor ever share it with anyone else. But someday I'll watch that interview again and marvel at how much consideration The Colonel showed me that day.
I visited The Colonel a few times in the years since, when I'd come home from Indiana. I remember the first time I stopped by to see him since I had moved away.
I was hopeful that he would remember me, though I wasn't expecting him to remember any details of our talk, since so many people visited him and it had been quite a while saw we spoke.
Boy, was I wrong. Within a minute of arriving, he asked me what I thought of Indiana. The Colonel, a man in his 90s, had a better memory than most people half his age. He had a better memory than I do -- that I can tell you.
When I originally told him I was moving to Indiana for graduate school and that I was nervous, he shrugged his shoulders, gave me a smile and said I'd never know what it was like unless I tried it. The Colonel made such an innocent comment sound funny and memorable. Here he was, a man who fought a war halfway around the world, and he was hearing how a kid was nervous about moving from State College to Bloomington so he could earn a Master's degree. I probably made him laugh to himself.
When I learned of his passing, I immediately felt empty inside. I have plenty of regrets in life, missed opportunities and bungled relationships. I'll always regret not making more of an effort to visit The Colonel, especially in the last few months after I moved home from Indiana.
I'll also lament not having met The Colonel earlier in my life and learning more from him, but hearing a first-hand account of what it was like in Iwo Jima during my 90-minute conversation with The Colonel was an extremely memorable experience. Maybe that's God's way of leveling things out.
I'm eternally grateful for all the time and consideration The Colonel gave to me, as well as everything he did for our country. Maybe that sounds corny, but it's also completely appropriate to say.
Last week, someone asked me if The Colonel and I were good friends. Surprisingly, I didn't know how to respond. There were certainly plenty of people who knew him longer and who knew him better.
Perhaps what's most noteworthy is the immense effect The Colonel had on me during our somewhat brief friendship. Joe Paterno once said, "Make an impact." Well, that's what The Colonel did with me.
It's a near certainty I won't live to be 97 years old, probably won't even come close. But I'll definitely remember the time I spent with The Colonel, as will anyone else fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him.
For now, I'm left with the memories. And just like The Colonel, they're pretty damn special.