Biography: Air Force officer was just as heroic serving as my brother-in-law
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Writer/philosopher Joseph Campbell defined a hero as someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. My brother-in-law Frank was a hero.
I first met Frank when he returned from Europe to marry the love of his life -- my sister Mary. At 13, I was swept off my feet by this tall, handsome, Air Force captain greeting me with a gift of genuine French perfume. My girlfriends were green with envy!
Over time, my teenage crush evolved into respect and admiration. I often told Mary that if she ever tired of him, she could ship him my way, and C.O.D. was fine. She never did; they celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary on Dec. 29, 2012.
Like most military families, they moved often. I spent part of the summer between my junior and senior years of high school with them near the Air Force base in South Carolina. They already had Frankie, an adorable little towhead, and Mary was expecting their second child.
At 16, I doubt I was much help, but I do remember Frank's kindness to me and his devotion to my sister. I figured he had a really tough job, as he was frequently called out in the middle of the night.
One time, there was an accident with several fatalities. The fire was so bad that Frank had to change his clothes in the garage -- the smell had penetrated to his skin. Despite that harrowing experience and the strain of flying 27 combat missions in World War II, Frank never let anything diminish the kind, gracious man he was.
In 1960, they were assigned to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. By then, they had added two precious daughters, Peggy and Mary. We didn't expect to see them for several years, but a personal disappointment prompted me to write and ask if I could deliver my Christmas presents in person. How better to heal a broken heart than with loved ones in paradise?
One afternoon at the beach, Mary and I swam out to a floating jetty. Soon, a young man joined us and struck up a conversation. Sure that he was interested in me, my tactful sister swam back to shore. Also assigned to Hickam, Jack and I chatted some more and he asked me out.
When he arrived at the house to pick me up, Jack was surprised at being grilled -- albeit tactfully -- by my brother-in-law, who outranked him considerably. I was touched by Frank's concern for my welfare. He'd become the big brother I never had -- as the oldest of eight children, he'd had lots of experience.
Later that year, I reunited with a former beau, whom I then married the following June. As we built our family, we visited Mary and Frank, who were living in Washington, D.C. One night before dinner, I sat our daughter Staci in the high chair and turned to get the chair's tray. An instant later, she was on the floor. For one horrible moment, we froze; then Staci started to laugh. Layers of diapers and corduroy rompers had saved the day.
Certain the high chair was the culprit, Frank wanted to throw it out. He took others' welfare seriously. In his many leadership roles, including commandant of the Air Force Institute of Technology, countless others benefited from that focus.
When my husband received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, we moved to Fort Hancock, N.J. Mary and Frank visited us there, and Al took him on a tour of the installation. Later, Al confessed to me his embarrassment at not having called "Ten hut" to his Army colleagues there to announce a senior officer's arrival. Gracious and kind to the core, Frank never mentioned it. He knew Al saw him first as a brother-in-law and friend.
As my husband and I added to our family, we continued to spend time together with Mary and Frank. In 1969, we were all sitting in our backyard in Pittsburgh when Staci came out to tell Uncle Frank he had a phone call. He'd been appointed executive assistant to the secretary of the Air Force -- a position that needed congressional approval. We were over the moon, but Frank was his usual humble self.
My brother-in-law was a prince of a man who devoted his life to his family and his country. I doubt I will ever know a person of such conscience and character again. Major Gen. Frank J. Simokaitis, USAF, Ret., died on Jan. 10. Our country and the world are lesser for his passing.
First Published February 1, 2013 12:00 am