Willis H. Bell a Life Worth Knowing-by his Son and Daughter
This is the story of a man who thought in so many ways that he failed in life, yet nothing was further from the truth!
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The story begins in Massachusetts on July 22, 1924. Willis Harrison Bell was the first child born to Sarah Teasdale Bell and Willis Milton Boutwell Bell. He was also the first of two sons born into a marriage that would soon fail. On the 20th of December 1926, in Los Angeles California his brother Charles Allen Bell II was born. Between Will’s birth and Charlie’s birth the couple moved from Massachusetts to California, the exact timing remains unknown. The marriage lasted about 3 to 4 years more as evidenced by the 1930 census. At that time Willis Sr. was a lodger in Los Angeles, while Sarah and the two boys were back in Newton, Massachusetts living with Sarah’s sister Lillian. Although the passage of time would bring drastic changes for these two brothers their lives would be interwined in ways neither could then imagine.
Within the next few years Sarah married Hervey Heywood. From that point their childhood history is taken from pieced together bits of information given by Will, Charlie and those they confided in. The divorce and new marriage created tensions and living changes that provided little stability. As adults Will and Charlie's memories of their early life with Sarah and Hervey were vague, sometimes with an air of sadness and even fear. When Will talked about his life in Massachusetts he could remember picking and eating blueberries. He also had memories of the leech filled Charles River. Both he and Charlie went out on the river on home made rafts, neither knowing how to swim. When their stepfather had too much to drink he was often mean to the boys. Later in life they felt it was because they were a constant reminder of another man with his wife. Will never talked much about his experiences in that situation.
When Will was nine and Charlie six their mother sent them to spend the summer with their dad and his new wife Edna Babbs Bell in California. They took the train across the United States with their Aunt Ethel. On their way to California they were able to visit the Chicago Worlds Fair. The trip, as eventful as it must have been, was rarely spoken of by Will. For reasons neither boy understood, at the end of the summer Sarah never sent for them to come home. They would not see her or hear from her again for over thirty years and then only because Charlie made contact with her. It is hard to imagine how these two young boys felt leaving their mother and the safety of Massachusetts for the bustling city of Los Angeles. However, they would be welcomed by Edna who cared for their needs and truely adored them. She would be a saving factor in their upbringing and a great support to them as men. Both Will and Charlie always spoke highly of Edna and showed the utmost concern and care for her. They called her mother and she was their mother in every sense.
LosAngeles and the Depression
The hard side of life did not prevent Will from forming a love affair with the game of basketball. Beginning in Junior High and later playing basketball at Poly Technic High. Charlie said he was a natural and even though Whitey (or Will) missed practices because of his paper route, he still became a starter when he was only a tenth grader. His biggest problem as a player was that the other teams soon learned that if they fouled him he would throw a punch. This happened often. Charlie recalls that when Will was mad his face would turn red and his eyes would tear up. At first his opponents mistook that for fear.They learned quickly that it meant to get out of his way. Will's temper later turned out to be his Achilles Heel and would dog him for the remainder of his life. It proved to be his undoing and was magnified by his experiences in the War and his deteriorating health.
Prohibition during the 1920's in America created an increase in crime and gangs. Crime bosses settled into many of the big cities across the country and Los Angeles was no exception. Los Angeles was run by the notorious Bugsy Siegel. Even though prohibition ended in 1933 the gang scene was set. Along with Bugsy Siegel came the infamous Mickey Cohen, referred to by Will many times during his later years. Cohen was initially sent to Los Angeles to keep an eye on Siegel. At an early age Cohen ran alcohol and later he expanded becoming one of Los Angeles' well known kingpins.
The summer Will and Charlie arrived in Los Angeles Willis Sr. was working for the May Company. The family had a home, and the elementary school they attended was in a decent area. As Will approached middle school age Willis Sr. lost his job and Edna (Mum) began managing tenement apartments in one of Los Angeles' heavily populated gang areas. Will refused to join a gang and was beat up regularly. The family eventually moved to an area that wasn't quite as bad. Will still had fights but now he began to win them. His platinum blond hair earned him the name "Whitey" and he slowly gained a reputation as a very tough kid. With an instinct for survival Will and Charlie adapted to life in the Los Angeles slums at a time when it was dangerous not to. To add to the family income and to earn money for his needs Will became a "newsey" at a young age. He sold papers in front of the Biltmore Hotel and he also had a large paper route. He was very successful, winning contests as well as having his picture in the newspaper.
One of the more mischievous memories recounted by Will was soaping the May Company windows. He was caught one night and hauled down to the police station by his ear. Another time he was playing with matches and mistakenly burned down the family garage. He remembered Mum requiring him to spend the summer scraping the charcoal off the burnt wall with a butter knife, only to see the garage later replaced. He recalled rolling garbage cans down the hills and watching them crash into cars. He also grinned about dropping water bags on people's heads from the top of a tunnel. There was a time when Charlie ran interference while Will stole candy from the store where Mum worked. Will later felt bad about that. Both he and his brother loved their step-mother and the name "Mum" was used with respect and adoration. Charlie was proud of Will and felt safe with him as an older brother. He learned that Will protected him at any cost; however, Will also used Charlie as a punching bag when he felt like it. Will and Charlie grew up in a culturally diverse area and racism was not in their vocabulary. In fact Will's best friend in high school was black. One of the saddest memories for Will was his friend sucker-punching him. Will was always ferociously loyal when it came to family and friends. Even though Will never joined a gang the local gang members knew him and respected him. Later after Will enlisted in the Marine Corps his gang related relationships saved his brother when he had a life threatening encounter with some "Pachucos".
On an interesting note in 1935 his dad Willis Sr., his mum Edna Babbs Bell, his brother Charlie and Will himself joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Willis Sr. was the first to be baptized followed within a couple of months by the rest of the family. Will was twelve and Charlie was nine. Will said that he attended church for a couple of months and then stopped going. I believe he told me he was getting into too many fights. During this time he recalled seeing his dad up on a soap box on a street corner preaching the gospel. The family's church activity though brief would prove to be a guiding light later on in life for Will, Charlie and their families.
A Consummate Marine - WWII
Like so many other American's Will enlisted in the Marine Corps on December 8th 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. HIs UNCLE CHARLIE had been a marine in WW1, and Will was proud of his story. Will was 17 years old and still in High School when he signed up. In order to be accepted by the Marine's he had to talk Mum into signing her permission. She could not resist him and off he went to Boot Camp. After Boot Camp he was stationed in different places throughout California ending up at Mare Island. Beginning in May of 1942 Will was assigned to the USS Chicago, a Northampton-class heavy cruiser. Of this experience he writes the following: "During this period of time, four teeth were extracted resulting in dry sockets to all four areas. After this trench mouth set in, and as a result my tonsils were extracted." That experience was a painful memory especially since the tonsils were cut out without any anesthesia.
Early in January 1943, the Chicago departed San Francisco, action-bound once more. On the 27th of January, she sailed from Nouméa to escort a Guadalcanal convoy. On the night of the 29th, as the ships approached that bitterly contested island, Japanese aircraft attacked the force and the Battle of Rennell Island was underway. During the attacks, two burning Japanese planes silhouetted the Chicago, providing light for torpedo attacks; two hits caused severe flooding and loss of power. Will later recalled: "When the first torpedo hit the ship I was blown through an open hatch down to the next deck, which really did a number on my back. In a later explosion that same night I sustained flash burns about the ankles." By the time the attack ended, fine work by those on board checked the Chicago's list and she was balanced. The Louisville took the disabled ship in tow and was relieved by a tugboat the following morning. During the afternoon, the Japanese attacked again. Despite heavy losses they managed to hit the disabled cruiser with four more torpedoes which sank her. Will always joked that his tonsils were in a jar at the bottom of the ocean. He was in the water for two hours and the navy dropped depth charges to keep away the sharks.
This happened around the same time as the Indianapolis Disaster. Will wrote: "After being picked up I was sent to the naval survivors camp at New Caladonia (Camp St. Louis). Here I was treated for the back injury and flash burns. Actually it took about one month before I could stand straight again. After that I only made sick call when the back would cause real trouble. Between March, 1943 and May, 1943 I suffered with a severe case of Yellow Jaundice, which really weakened me for a length of time."
"Gung-Ho " in the 6th Marine Division Raider Battalion
After his experience on the Chicago Will decided to volunteer for the Raider Battalion 6th Marine Division. While scraping paint off of ships at Mare Island he and a fellow Marine were assigned to ride on the running boards of President Roosevelt's car in Southern California. During this event they saw many recruiting posters for Carlson's Raiders. They thought anything was better than scraping paint, so they joined the Raider Battalion. These Battalions spearheaded operations in the South Pacific and were reputed as the roughest of the Marines. Will went through rigorous training at Camp Pendleton, ending up as a Rubber Boat Instructor. He talked about riding the waves in with full gear. He reported that when a boat capsized they would end up picking up gear along the beach front. As far as I know his first action as a Marine Raider was on the island of Bougainville.
The following information was taken from Marine Raider Records and relates Will's official service experience. "On November 1st 1943 Assault landing at Cape Torokina, Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, BSI. I and K, and one-half of HQ Companies landed, at 0730, on Green Beach #1, on the north side of Puruata Island, and encountered heavy enemy resistance. M Company landed on Green Beach #2, on the main land, pushed through enemy positions to set up a road block on the Mission Trail, about a mile north of the beachhead. L Company landed over Green Beach #2 later in the A.M. The 4th Marines were reborn on 1 February 1944 when it was reconstituted from units of the 1st Raider Regiment on Guadalcanal under the command of Lt. Colonel Alan Shapley. The Raider regiment’s battalions had fought at Guadalcanal, New Georgia, and Bougainville. Following its initial operation in its new capacity, an unopposed seizure of Emirau Island, the regiment returned to Guadalcanal where it was integrated into the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade on 19 April 1944. The 1st Provisional Brigade was assigned to southern beaches in the Agat-Bangi Point area for the assault on Guam."
While on Bougainville Jungle Rot plagued Will. He and other affected Marines required treatment back at Guadalcanal that consisted of putting their legs in a metal basin of water with an electrical current flowing through to clean out the ulcerated sores. Will talked about squeezing the sores and having contests to see who could hit the top of the tent first. He also said that you could see right down to the bone. In his own words: "In December of 1943, while in combat on Bougainville, my legs below the knees became ulcerated (at least thirty ulcers on each leg). By the time I got back to our base on Guadalcanal, my legs were swelled at least twice normal with a goose egg in each groin. I was treated nearly every other day for over a month. The corpsman would clean out each ulcer and then put a band on my leg wired to 110V, put my leg into a box of water, leaving each one in about ten minutes, then cover the leg with sulfa ointment and loosely bandage until the next treatment." During Will's service on the islands it is documented that he contracted Dengue Fever. Of this he wrote: "After a combat mission to Emireau Island, I suffered from dengue fever for about one month." His experience on Guam would stay with him and affect him in various ways for the rest of his life.
Lieutenant Colonel Shapley’s 4th Marines were in the first assault waves that hit the beaches on 21 July 1944. As the regiment moved inland it encountered stiff resistance and the heavy fighting continued throughout the day. During the ensuing night the 4th Marines successfully withstood several enemy counterattacks. The following day the regiment reached the top of Mount Alifan across difficult terrain and secured the entire ridge line. Shortly before daybreak on 26 July, the 4th Marines led off the offensive on the Orote Peninsula. This objective was finally taken on the 29th. The end of organized resistance on Guam was announced on 10 August. The job of mopping up Japanese survivors remained and the regiment stayed on Guam for nearly three weeks to aid in this task. In his words: "About April 25, 1944 I went aboard ship for the Marianas operation. We hit the beach at Agat, Guam July 21. 1944. Around July 26 1944, in the middle of the night, I accidentally shot and killed my squad leader and good friend as he was coming in from down the lines. Just before that, a shell hit a tree and wounded my buddy who was on the same machine gun with me. Another person I was rather close to was killed, and the next day, my section sergeant was shot and fell next to me. He handed me his 38 revolver and that was the last I saw of him. Everyone that I was close to was gone in that twelve-hour period. From then on, I can't remember any names or faces, but I can remember what happened. After another few days (maybe a week) I started shaking pretty regularly--I shrugged it off to being scared, although this had never happened to me before. After another week or two I was out on patrol about a half mile in front of the lines and I passed out. How the people got me back, I'll never know. I wound up in a field hospital with Cerebral Malaria and received a good amount of blood at that time. From then on my memory fails me. I'm quite sure that I was taken to a mobile hospital at Guadalcanal and to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital. After that I was transfered to San Diego Naval Hospital. Apparently, I had no conception of elapsed time."
Psychologically Will was a mess. Within a 24 hour period on Guam he lost two of his best friends and two were wounded. For most of his adult years he believed he fired one of those fatal shots. The iron clad rule in the Raiders was that anyone above ground after dark was shot. Without this rule the enemy could easily attack and kill after dark. If someone had to get out of his fox-hole at night word was to be sent down the line. Unfortunately this night word never was passed on to Will so he fired when he heard sounds, just as he was trained to do. The next day his friend was found dead. Will carried this burden with him, never talking about it until his mid-forties. He went on fighting until he was so ill with Cerebral Malaria that he was literally out of his mind. He was found at the top of a cocnut tree raving incomprehensibly. At the time his superiors thought he was suffering from severe post traumatic stress. He was put in lock-up on a ship full of men who were mentally ill and sent to a hospital in San Diego.
Will later recounted to his daughter that he knew he was physically ill but he was unable to communicate that to anyone. Once in San Diego he was again put him in lock-up. Finally, one of his buddies convinced the doctors that Will was not mentally ill. Once the Cerebral Malaria was discovered Will was given quinine and he began to recover. Decades later he ran into this same buddy. Unbeknownst to him his friend had spent time with him in San Diego when he was hospitalized. Much of his personal information came from this meeting.
Ninty-five percent of those who contract Cerebral Malaria never recover. Will was left with high blood pressure, terrible headaches, black-outs, sweating and the shakes along with a mirad of mental and personality changes. For the remainder of his life his war time maladies would follow him casting a shadow over all of his pursuits.
After the War
Even though Will could not remember what happened to him when he returned to the states. In later year he visited a war buddy who enlightened him. “Last year in October 1983, I went to Connecticut to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday. At this time, I stopped to visit Jay Pinckney, the sergeant who gave me his 38 caliber revolver when he was shot on Guam--the last time I remembered seeing him. The real shocker to me was that this really wasn't the case. He told me that we were together in the San Diego Naval Hospital for about three and one-half months and that we used to talk nearly every day. He told me that I was great on a one-on-one basis, but seemed confused when other people were involved. He said that I was in an open ward the first month, but then was put in 'lock-up' after that but that they would let me out in his charge. He also said that we discussed the shooting at this time and that I seemed relieved and satisfied with his explanation as to what had happened. He said that no one on the hospital staff would tell him what was wrong with me, other than that I belonged in "lock-up". Jay said that he was transferred out a few days before Christmas in 1944. This was the last we saw or heard from each other until October 1983, with the exception of greeting cards once in awhile. In October of 1983 , I realized for the first time that I have no recall of what took place in my life between sometime in August, 1944 until around May of 1945. I have no memory of being discharged from San Diego Hospital, nor can I tell when I started to have any memory of duty at the North Island Naval Air Station. No one in my family or my wife ever made an issue of the fact that I hadn't written for one year. They had no idea where I was at the time, except from what was written by the media.”
After he regained his memory Will made his way to the Bay Area to see his girlfriend VIVA DENYSE JOHNSON. She lived in Oakland at the time. She hadn't heard from him for a year and he didn't know what to tell her because of his memory loss. They resumed dating. Denny recalled that during their courtship two incidents occurred that caused her to consider breaking the relationship off. The first incident involved three Navy sailors who whistled at Denny when she got on an Oakland city bus with Will. Without hesitating Will jumped them right there on the bus. Another guy stepped in to help Will and they all got kicked off of the bus. The other incident happened days before they were to be married. They were at their new apartment getting it ready when Will suddenly lost his temper and yelled so loud and so long that he scared Denny. She went home and told her mother about the incident. She admitted that Will had changed since he had returned from combat and she was considering calling off the wedding. Her mother, Francis, adored Will and advised Denny that he had been through a great deal and it would take time for him to return to his old self. That advise swayed Denny and the couple was married by a Methodist minister on March 3, 1946 in Oakland, California at Denny's home.
Denny began taking the missionary discussions to find out more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Three years later she was baptized. I have gathered by talking to those who were aquainted with Will and Denny during this time that there were many happy times at the beginning of their marriage, but Will's temper did not settle down as Francis had predicted. It became more extreme. During the the next few years Will tried to attend San Francisco City College but was unable to continue his studies or play basketball for them because of migraine headaches left over from his bout with cerebral malaria. He was not able to pass physcials for jobs and was having trouble finding a job he was suited for because of his his health issues. He later wrote, “I tried to get on the basketball team at San Francisco City College in 1946 but couldn't pass the physical because of severe hypertension. The doctor wrote a letter to this effect. Because of severe headaches and being unable to study, I finally had to give up my schooling after a year. I was unable to pass a physical for sales positions with Libby, McNeil&Libby and Gerber's Baby Food Company in 1947. Later on I got a sales position with the Telephone Company, but the doctor told me that he thought I might be a borderline diabetic. I made the excuse that I had been drinking the night before and he accepted this.”
One of his biggest disappointments came when he was turned down by the Los Angeles Police Department. In 1953 Will took the physical agility and comprehension test to become a City of Los Angeles police officer. He scored very high on both but was rejected because of the physical examination. The written report stated, "…Hypertension, evidence of vasomotor instability and a lack of flexibility in his spine.” As frustrated as he was he continued to work long hours at sales jobs.
Will delivered bakery goods door to door and was hired by Sears to do their repossessions. He once repossessed a motorcycle and accidentally ran it into a wall because he didn't know how to stop it. Finally around 1955 he was hired by Carnation Dairies in Oakland, California to run a retail milk route. He liked being outside and he liked the fact that he was on his own. He proved to be very successful going door to door and quickly built a name for himself. He became a retail supervisor after a couple of years and was sent all over California's Bay Area to clean-up Carnations retail operations. He became known as their “hatchet man.” He hired and fired—one of his jobs was to watch for employees who were stealing. He worked 5-7 days a week from early in the morning until late at night.
As time went on Will's health deteriorated but his drive to work and to raise a family did not. By 1964 there were four children in the Bell household. The first two were girls born in 1949 and 1951. The third child, a boy, was born in 1956. Then in 1964 Will and Denny welcomed their last child, a girl, into their home. Growing up in this family was not easy. Will had many frustrations and one of the most devastating was his failing health. Another major frustration was the fact that Will and Denny were constantly at odds and even the smallest disagreements quickly turned into major combat. This combined with Will’s hair-trigger temper and perfectionism made for a chaotic and unstable enviornment for the Bell children. Despite all of this, the family remained intact. During these years Will stayed close to his brother Charlie and became reacquainted with his biological mother, Sarah Heywood. By 1969 the family was living in San Jose, California and his oldest daughter was married. His health problems were beginning to cause limitations that he could no longer ignore or deny.
The Final Years-Illness Rears It's Ugly Head
1970--1987 | 17 years of frustration and fruition
The last part of Will's life story began in San Jose California, while still working for Carnation Dairies. I want to begin this section by saying that not only was Will the toughest man that this author has ever met, he was also very intelligent. He was a quick thinker and using one of his favorite expresssions "an innovator"! The name Will fit him well.
Rather than engaging in a lengthy dissertation of each malady he suffered I will make a quick list of them in chronological order. These health problems occurred back to back during a seventeen year period: 1) Major Back Surgery -Two herniated discs removed; 2) Heart Attack - 60% of his heart muscle destroyed not reported and undiscovered for several years; 3)Severe Angina Pectoris treated with drugs and forcing Will's early retirement; 4) Arterial Sclerosis; 5) Mild Type 2 Diabetes; 7) Triple Bypass Surgery rather than quadruple due to limited leg vein material due to previously stripped veins resulting from the effects of jungle rot; 8) Severe Diabetes requiring insulin shots; 9) Multiple mini-strokes causing falls and fainting; 10) Carotid Artery Surgery - two surgeries on the right side and one on the left; 11) Right Leg Amputated Below the Knee - effects of diabetes; 12) Cataract Surgery both eyes; 13) Teeth removed and fitted with dentures; 14) Second toe on left foot amputated due to diabetes; 15) Bladder Cancer; 16) Angioplasty on a bypassed artery; 17) Congestive Heart Failure which ultimately took his life.
In 1969 or 1970 Will's family took a vacation for a week up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Will stayed home and during that time he had his first major heart attack. He later recounted that he was on the floor for a day or so and finally managed to get himself together. He never said a word about it for 2 plus more years. After under going tests it was discovered that a significant portion of his heart muscle had been destroyed.
Will was tough in every sense of the word. He never slowed down; he was a doer! He didn't act like a tough guy but he had an obvious toughness about him. His family knew he would go to the matt in order to potect them from outside harm. His children intuitively understood that he would willingly give his life for them if required. He was a dedicated father in that respect. His family also feared him because of his irrational temper flare-ups. The after affects of all of his war time experiences both physical and mental caused sometimes unbearable stress for the family. These often irrational temper flare-ups escalated once he was forced to slow down and retire. He literally became a heart cripple which forced him to retire from Carnation Dairies in 1972. Both the retirement and the health constraints were devastating to him.
The family which now consisted of Will, Denny, Charlie and Becky settled in Vacaville, California in 1972. Charlie would finish High School in Vacaville and Becky just seven had many years of school left. Will and Denny continued a volatile relationship. Charlie and Becky were subjected to daily arguing since WIll was now home full-time. In order to get out of the house and fullfill a lifelong dream Will went to college at CSU, Sacramento and received a BS Degree in Business Administration. He wanted so badly to go back to work that he applied fro a job with a delivery company as a route driver and snuck a sample of his son's urine in so he could pass the physical. He passed but ended up in the VA hospital ill, which ruined his chances to work. I think he just wanted to prove to himself that he could still get a job!
Will considered the VA one of his greatest blessings. When he was forced to retire he had no means of support for his family. He was receiving 15% disability from his Marine Corps discharge. He applied to have his disability re-evaluated. When the VA reviewed his condition and compared it to his service records they agreed his disability was service related and upped his monthly stipend to 120%. This took care of him and his family, however it was distressing to him because he felt like he was on the "dole".
During the next 17 years Will spent about 60% to 70% of his time in the hospital. He never gave up and he said it was his goal to live to see his youngest daughter married. He accomplished that and lived another 5 months before he passed away while sleeping on his chair on December 17, 1987.
Willis H. Bell.s Legacy
1987 till now | The Western United States
Will did not consider himself a success. He may have been satisfied to a certain extent, but he never felt like he reached his potential. As his only son I see things differently. He was hard on himself, passing that trait on to his children. Many times we could not tolerate being at home because of the violent anger erupting between our parents and because of irrational anger directed at us. However, as children we gained from having Will as our father. All four adult children are doers and strive to be their best. All are religiously active and have great hope for the future. Each of us knows the importance of family and acknowledges the need to raise our children in a loving manner. Our father, as ill as he was, modeled a love of family to each of us. He believed in us and in our ability to be better and do better than he did.
My mother and father were married for 41 years. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints they were sealed to each other for time and all eternity in in the Oakland California Temple in 1973. Each of their children has experienced the same blessing with their spouse and children, and have a strong faith in an eternal family. My mom just passed away at 86 years old, and she carried good memories of dad. She had a strong desire to be with him again, and that has now happened. He taught us that life is precious and he showed us how to deal with adversity by the way he faced his own challenges. We are all hard workers and are unable to feel sorry for ourselves for long.
I am proud to be his son; my dad is my hero. In overlooking his weaknesses and imperfections I am able to see the man he truly was. In my minds eye I am able to now see both my mom and dad without their infirmities and that visualization is an inspiration in my life. We all have a story and often when we are privileged to partake of someone else's story it may be easier for us to look at our own lives and find satisfaction. There is no perfect existence, perhaps Will's life and even our lives with him as our father illustrate that we all have cards we are dealt in life and it is our choice to do our best with what we have. I am convinced good things can come from every story.
Time has gone by since my dad's death. I miss him every day . Writing about him has brought him closer and through the tears a better understanding has come. He has four children, fifteen grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren. His line will continue to grow and will carry the legacy that he and our mom have left us, forever. Each of his descendants will have their own set of circumstances to deal with and it is my hope that each can go back and take a look at this courageous patriarch and be proud of their roots.