Quietly, in the solemn gray type of the obituaries pages, a proud generation of Americans is disappearing.
For much of the 20th century the so-called Greatest Generation — those born between 1910 and 1924 — formed the moral backbone of the nation.
Presidents John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush were members of this generation, a group of Americans who were collectively children during the Great Depression and young adults during World War II. Now, their numbers have dwindled to less than 1 percent of the United States population. Baby boomers, on the other hand, still number more than 73 million and represent more than a quarter of the nation's population.
The other day, I was in the lobby of the Times Free Press building and I met Michael O'Rear. O'Rear is an early stage baby boomer. Michael's dad, Alf "Tony" O'Rear, was a World War II veteran and former Chattanooga-area Tennessee state representative. His son was at the newspaper attending to his obit.
The elder Mr. O'Rear, who passed away May 4, grew up in East Chattanooga in the shadow of Missionary Ridge. He survived the Great Depression and stormed the beach at Normandy. Later, he became a bricklayer who worked his way through law school, eventually launching a practice that would span about 60 years. Michael was his only child.
I asked Michael O'Rear that day in the lobby if he would stop back by in a few days to talk to me about his dad, who served as a state representative in Nashville in the 1960s.
One day last week, O'Rear returned carrying an armful of artifacts from his dad's life: a small bottle of sand from Omaha Beach, an old caricature of his dad drawn by a newspaper artist, a '60s-era Tennessee license plate stamped with "O'Rear" (a perk of elective office) and a host of law licenses.
I asked Michael O'Rear, a local entrepreneur, about his father's influence on his own life. He said his father taught self-reliance forged in the Great Depression.
"I think for them [the Greatest Generation] it was the double whammy of the Depression and World War II," Michael O'Rear said. "Everybody had to pitch in just to survive. You learned to do things for the greater good. You helped others more. Communities were smaller. Nobody had much, but those who had a little shared with those who had nothing."
Over the next hour, Michael stitched together memories and stories from his dad's life. This, in a nutshell, is what he said:
As a boy, Tony was one of 13 children. His father, John O'Rear, was an East Chattanooga entrepreneur and business owner who made a name for himself building houses out of lumber salvaged from train cars. John O'Rear owned a pool hall, among other businesses, and young Tony often would accompany his dad to the billiards establishment.
Once, when he was in elementary school, Tony is said to have punched a kid who was bullying a younger child.
"Why did you hit me?" the bully said, presumably nursing his nose.
"I was afraid I wouldn't be mad any more by the time we got to the playground," Tony explained.
When Tony was 15, his father died and so Tony dropped out of school to help take care of his 12 siblings. He got a job as a grocery delivery boy and once tried to ride his wagon down Missionary Ridge, a trick that ended with Tony deposited on a resident's front porch.
When World War II came around, Tony was working at Combustion Engineering, a defense plant, but quit to volunteer for the Army. He sailed on the Queen Mary to England, where he once avoided a bar fight with a bunch of Brits by teaming up with an Army Ranger to make an orderly retreat.
After the war, O'Rear came home and became a brick mason before deciding to go to law school. He spent a term in the Tennessee General Assembly as a state representative, he lost in an attempt to win a state Senate seat.
Michael said he can see his father's Greatest Generation influence up and down his family tree, with values that have been passed down to descendants.
Says Michael, "That's a legacy that's better than a fortune."
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.