What are the challenges of moving from war zones to the relative safety of American shores? Do choices differ with each individual?
Tagged by journalist Tom Brokaw as a member of the Greatest Generation, Harry Ashburn, a World War II veteran from Piqua, was a truck driver in the Philippines, occupied by the enemies of America throughout most of the war. At times he was delivering Marines behind enemy lines, but a scene when he was delivering food and other supplies stands out for him. It was following the Great Raid at Cabanatuan Prison on Jan. 30, 1945, where he observed Allied-liberated POWs who were physically challenged, starved, and stoic.
Ashburn exited the Army on Nov. 14, 1945, and returned to his job as a sheet-metal worker for the Pennsylvania Railroad. After two months he, a blue-collar worker from a blue-collar town, decided that college, via the GI Bill, might be a better option. So it was off to Otterbein University where Professor Harold Hancock inspired him to major in history. Ashburn earned his B.A. in 1949, and it was off to a series of teaching, coaching, and administrative positions and an M.A.in administration from Ohio University.
One of his most satisfying positions was his four years at Perry High School in Lima, Ohio, a school with a mix of rural, suburban, and inner-city students. He cites an excellent teacher and coach, Leonard Volbert, as instrumental in the success of that school. Volbert had been “disadvantaged himself and understood students from the ghetto and was able to give them hope that they could rise out of their economic limitations.”
Other faculty in that school were of high quality as well and mentored new faculty in the culture of excellence. Several industries in Lima were willing to supply funds so that as principal, Ashburn could bring in inspirational speakers such as Jesse Owens, Olympic Gold Medalist; Wayne Embry, pro basketball player; and William McKinley, Major League baseball umpire.
Ashburn’s longest tenure at 19 years was at Bennett Junior High in Piqua, known, according to him, as “a graveyard for principals, a school on the wrong side of the tracks.” Ashburn made it a point to know the names and faces of each of the students from a low of 400 students to a high of 700 within the first six weeks of each school year.
Today, when he meets his former students who say, “You paddled me,” he has the same question for each, “Did you deserve it?” They all say, “Yes.”
He feels that in penalty cases, it’s important that “kids be aware of why they are in that situation.”
Ashburn always gave them options: a regular paddle or the “Great Paddle” made by the industrial arts teacher and measuring two inches thick, nine inches wide with holes drilled in it, and two feet long. No student ever opted for the Great Paddle.
When Ashburn was asked why he retired at age 62 in 1985 from Bennett, he said, “It was never about children. I never got tired of the kids.”
A veteran of the Forgotten War, the Korean Conflict, Benjamin Hiser, also of Piqua, says of Ashburn, “I never had a son who went to Bennett Junior High who didn’t like him: he is kind, generous, widely respected.”
At age 95, Ashburn is forever the intelligent, articulate man, committed to helping others and demonstrating that with motivation and planning, men and women can exit the military and use their military educational benefits to write another chapter in their life’s story, a rich chapter that resonates with hundreds of others in such positive ways.
Dr. Blevins has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teachescommunication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College. Reach her at (937)778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.