Bill Terry, in memoriam

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January 14, 2018

At today’s services, we dedicated a beautiful new green altar frontal and hangings to the glory of God and in loving memory of William Leake Terry. Bill Terry died a year ago on Christmas Day. We buried him four days later. Knowing that we were dedicating the frontal today, I asked his family if I might repeat the homily I gave on that occasion. They said yes.

William Leake Terry, in memoriam

For some of us, The Crown was must-see TV this fall. It is the story of England’s Elizabeth II as a girl and young queen. The Crown is soulful like Friday Night Lights and dressed up like Downton Abbey.

In episode eleven, we learn that Elizabeth was embarrassed by her lack of learning. The episode title is Scientia Potentia est: “Knowledge is power.” She felt her lack of it, keenly, in her weekly chats with Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, whose talk was salted by philosophy and history.

Elizabeth had been homeschooled by palace tutors, who spent hours drilling in her in protocol and etiquette: who sat where and talked to whom when entertaining heads of state. The one piece of philosophy she was taught was a silly-seeming distinction between “dignified” and “efficient” components of the English Constitution. It was a play on Aristotle’s four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. Elizabeth was taught that the dignified, symbolic power would be hers as queen. The efficient power was the political machinery through which laws were made and things actually got done. That now belonged to Churchill. On my couch I am thinking: the crown and a quarter buys a cup of coffee.

Then, as the episode unfolds, we are shown a dangerous moment for England when it takes the Queen’s exercise of dignity to save the day. With the queen, we realize that her little bit of homeschooled knowledge could be potent and that her royal dignity was too.

William L. Terry was born with dignity. He bore it naturally, humbly, and heroically. It was for someone like Bill that the phrase was coined: “He bore an honored name and added honor to the name he bore.” As a quiet congressman’s son from Arkansas, he rose to the top of the ranks at St. Alban’s School as Senior Prefect. He rowed crew at Princeton. Pearl Harbor came December of his freshman year. Before graduating, he enlisted. He wanted to fly but was told he was too tall. The army let him be a gunner, on B-17 Bombers, only because this time he fibbed about his height. He completed 34 missions over Europe. As he knew from the start, the odds of his surviving that were small.

I was ordained in 1982, at which time the World War II airmen were beginning to retire. They were still vigorous. One of my first Senior Wardens had been a bomber pilot in the European Theater and when he wasn’t playing golf he was up and down the Ozark ridges hunting quail. I went back to bury him six years ago.

It’s now been seventy-five years since Pearl Harbor. Bill’s comrades in arms who still survive now cope as best they can with ravages of time. In The Crown, we see Churchill struggling with indignities of advancing years, including his needing to sit down in the presence of the young Queen. Nor has the Queen herself been spared: this Christmas Day she wasn’t feeling up to attending church. Death and infirmity are no respecters of dignity in monarchs, prime ministers, or heroic generations. This is the downslope alluded to in Paul’s Epistle:

What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.

The downslope comes with human nature, as the antithesis of glory.

Bill was a dutiful son to a famous and imposing mother, Adolphine Fletcher Terry. At her urging, he kept a diary of his military service: William L. Terry: Diary of Overseas Service with 388th Bomb Group, 560th Bomb Squadron, Eighth Air Force, England, March-August, 1944.

The first entry was made stateside, still in training—February 26, 1944: Called home tonight after the Prisoner of War lecture. Mom said to be sure and keep a diary, something I’ve always shied from, so here goes. Here’s hoping this lasts more than a week.

Skipping forward and across the Atlantic, here is an entry from his second mission: March 28: Mission #2 (8 ½ hours) Boy we hated to get up at 3:00. . . . bombed airfield at Bordeaux. . . . Long trip. Heavy flak. Hit in several places. Bomb rack from another plane lodged in wing. #2 engine cut out over target and we had to drop out of formation and lose our altitude. Not too pleasant to be that far from home and all by yourself. . .

For excitement, that run was about average.

A result of this sort of work would be that democracy was saved on both sides of the Atlantic, and life could return to normal. That was the point of winning—that life as we have known it could happen; that life as Adolph Hitler would have had us live it, did not occur. In a September 8, 1941, essay for Time magazine, a great German theologian named Karl Barth asked England and America to declare war on his own country to prevent Hitler from forcing his new order on the world. Barth was blunt: We Christians do not accept this war as a necessary evil. We approve it as a righteous war, which God commands us to wage ardently.

With valor and distinction, Bill Terry did his part to win the war. Then he came home to court his girl, Betty Kilbury. His friend and neighbor Sanford McDonnell, who would go on to run McDonnell Douglass Corporation, urged him on. Sandy called Betty “Betty Boop,” and Boop for short. Bill and Boop would have a knack for making daughters.

And life in the free world rolled on. Money and laws were made. Novels and songs were written. Gizmos and gadgets were invented. Men flew on rockets to the moon. Elections were held and republicans and democrats took turns in office. Crises were faced, including the notorious one in Little Rock, in which Bill and his mother both played parts. Smaller wars were won and lost; football games that felt like wars were too. After football season, blinds were brushed so that, come winter, Bill and his friends could drive down to Arkansas County to their tents at Tuf Nut, and drink and talk football and politics by night around the campfire; and sleep warm in massive sleeping bags; then get up and out before daybreak to be ready when wood ducks zoomed by and mallards dropped into flooded timber. When wives and daughters came down, the men could dress camp up a bit and shake the mice out of the sleeping bags—or maybe not.

They had won the war so things like that could happen—and like Brown versus Board of Education, and the dawn of civil rights for black folk, who had also fought against the Nazis. And so Bill could take his daughters out to Barton Coliseum to see the president of the United States, hoisting the youngest to his shoulders for a better look. On his next trip out of Washington that president would go to Dallas.

And in springtime, you and your buddies and your families could drive up into the Ozarks on Highway 7, then drop down to the low water bridge at Ponca, to float the prettiest river in America, spending a night riverside at Camp Orr where you could laugh around the campfire about who got tumped and why at Gray Rock.  

And in summer, you could pull your girls up on water skis and run them up and down the lake at Scott, telling them don’t mind the cottonmouths, they’re more scared of you than you are of them, which they knew was propaganda. But you had beaten Hitler so you could say that, do that, and they could roll their eyes, and laugh, and love you for it.

And they could grow up and get married, or not, and have children of their own—two girls, one boy—and you could dote on them, take pride in them, and send them back east to college, Wellesley, Vassar, and Princeton, taking joy in that. And you could show them yourself that dignity is power, proving that by your effect on them, and on your friends, your church, and your law firm.

And you could do all that honorably, humbly, quietly—because all your life you could be that kind of man.  

July 14: Mission 29 (after D-Day): The best mission yet, a secret one, dropping supplies to the French patriots in the mountains below Bordeaux. Really a long run. Off at 3:30 and over the invasion coast, my first real look at it. Millions of ships all along. Clouds then covered up all northern France . . . Let down and by the time we reached the i.p. we were at 500 feet. Saw people waving etc., really fun. Big bonfires directed the planes [to the drop]. Circled a few times and then flew back gaining altitude all the way. Fighters were in the vicinity but didn’t attack us, thank God.

On August 30, Bill boarded the Queen Mary for the voyage home: Eleven of us are in one stateroom on canvas 3 decker bunks that really make a racket when you turn over.

Sept. 1, still in port: Big rumor is that Churchill is coming aboard

Sept. 10, arrival in North America: Big Day! Went up on the boat deck to be sure and see everything. . . . Canadian Mounties were all over the place keeping the people away. Finally the bunch steamed down the gangway, admirals, WRNS, WAAFS, etc. Then after a pause Mrs. Churchill came out and after her the old boy, smoking the biggest cigar I ever saw. Then after they were in the shed a little while meeting the committee, they came back out and waved to us for a little while and gave the V sign.

Through the bravery and sacrifice of men like William L. Terry, the efficient powers of democracy, and decency prevailed.

And now, for him, something similar occurs. St. Paul says: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

The resurrection of the dead is pure divine efficient power. It happens because God is able and willing to make it so. Why would God want to raise the dead? What is man, that thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8, verse 4) Consider the abiding love of Bill for Boop—and Beth, Ellen, Susan, Eliza, Rachael, and Fletcher. What would he not do for them if he could do it? Would he raise them from the dead? He would and no one doubts it.

What I say next is said in faith. Christmas, the day Bill Terry died, is the basis for it. God’s love isn’t less than Bill’s. It is more. As the glory of the moon is to the glory of the sun, so is the glory of a human father’s love to God’s. The good things in life are reflections of their source.

St. Paul applies that analogy to us.

There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead.

Again:

What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.

There is our promise of human dignity retained, restored, and magnified in life to come, through the loving efficiency of God.

So be it.

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