A Living Legacy

The old soldier knows what it’s like to be miserably cold.

Looking out the sliding glass doors that shield him from howling winds and freezing rain, he remembers a time when he wasn’t so fortunate to be sheltered from Mother Nature’s winter fury. This little Texas cold front, he says, is nothing compared to conditions he endured during World War II.

Over 60 years ago, he was a young man stationed in France as an officer of the U.S. Army. Temperatures plunged below freezing, and men’s bodies shook uncontrollably as they struggled to keep warm. Bearing a gallon of French wine, he made rounds to all his soldiers, offering a gulp as an antidote to the cold. One young recruit could barely talk through his chattering teeth, but managed to communicate that he didn’t drink alcohol. The soldier made him take a swallow anyway. A few minutes later, the boy’s shaking had subsided and he thanked his commanding officer for the blood-warming drink.

“Well, son,” the officer replied. “I hope I don’t make a damn alcoholic out of you!”

Time has not dulled M B Etheredge. Today, at 91 years old, he still exhibits a sensitivity to others that has guided him through life. He’ll still help a lady remove her coat. He’s been a soldier, politician, educator, entrepreneur – and now, in the twilight of his years, is a man who shows no retreat from life. He exercises daily, courts his lady friend, fishes in his lake and reflects on the events that shaped his life of service.

During the war, Etheredge was considered an old man by the other infantry recruits. Most of them were fresh out of high school, but Etheredge had already received his bachelor’s degree from Sam Houston State and had held a job as the youngest superintendent of schools in the state of Texas. He was married, too – he met his wife, Emma, in the registration line at college.

It was she who informed him about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Today, he ashamedly admits that his response to that news was simply, “Where’s that?”

“I was ignorant so many times in my life,” he said.

Feeling the burning desire to defend his country, Etheredge quit his desk job and volunteered to help fight the war. He entered the Army as a private, but quickly climbed the ranks. Assigned to the 3rd infantry division, he fought the war in Africa, France and Italy; his division assisted in the capture of Rome.

In March 1944, Etheredge led a group of soldiers who killed at least 10 Germans and captured 12 others. Two months later, fighting the pain of a wounded leg, he took control of a regiment after the other five officers were either killed or wounded. Then, he led his company through steady fire and successfully secured a position vital to the success of their mission. His valor earned him three Silver Star medals, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

The only man to earn more medals was Audie Murphy, one of his best friends.

His eyebrows furrow together as he remembers the Germans’ slaughter of Allied troops.

“The four months on Anzio were a bitch,” he says darkly. “The Germans completely obliterated the Rangers.”

His gaze drifts outside the sliding glass doors again, where the rain has only lessened slightly. Pointing to the lake that cozies up against his backyard, he shakes his head in disbelief. “I was as far [from the Rangers] as about twice from here to the lake,” he says, citing a distance of only about 100 yards. “We lost nearly 20,000 men in that operation.”

Etheredge often explains distances in terms of the lake. He built that lake and its two islands decades ago as the centerpiece for the Spring Lake subdivision, a community he developed on the west side of Huntsville. In the summertime, children would swim in the water to escape the scorching Texas heat. Members of the Houston Astros and their relatives sometimes even drive up just to go fishing in his lake.

Baseball is Etheredge’s favorite sport, but he’s always up for a good basketball or football game, too. When his wife was alive, they could often be seen cheering together for the Sam Houston teams. After all, their romance had been slowly kindled in Bearkat country when they were still undergraduates. She was two years older than he was, a math student with a high G.P.A. Etheredge was more of a socialite, earning recognition as captain of the track team and senior class president. It was several years after his graduation before Etheredge asked Emma to marry him.

“I’m so glad I had the sense to marry that fine woman,” he says.

Ginny Thompson, the Etheredges’ daughter, said her mother often told her that if she had not married Etheredge, she would have remained single her whole life.

“She knew he was the only man she could ever love,” Thompson says.

Emma has been dead for seven years now.

Every morning, Etheredge takes a walk around the lake to get his blood flowing. Sometimes he is accompanied on his morning excursion with his new “lady friend.” They’ve been seeing each other for the past couple of years.

“She’s just a young woman,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “She’s only 80.”

After the walk, Etheredge returns to his kitchen to make breakfast. As a country boy, he likes a hearty breakfast: eggs, bacon, oatmeal, toast, milk and orange juice often grace his plates.

Breakfast has always been a big deal for Etheredge, recalls Emma Dee Jones. She has worked for the family for nearly 40 years. Though she can’t remember the exact date she began cooking and cleaning for them (it was sometime after she had her six children and needed a part-time job), she knows it was before they moved into their new house on the lake. She had many household duties, but breakfast was never one of them. Even at the peak of Etheredge’s career, she says, he would make breakfast for his wife and daughter before rushing off to work.

And he was always busy. After coming home from the war in 1947, he served as a Texas state representative and began working on his master’s degree from his alma mater at the same time. Even though he and his wife only had one car to share, he always managed to get to Austin when he needed to by hitching rides with friends. He served three consecutive terms in the legislature, and completed post-graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin. When he decided not to seek re-election in 1953, SHSU President Harmon Lowman invited him to fill the now-obsolete position of director of public service. Later, he transferred to the education department, and eventually taught for almost 34 years. Besides developing the Spring Lake subdivision, he also founded two banks – one in Huntsville and one in Trinity. He’s been successful, so he doesn’t have to worry about money anymore. He still shops frugally, though: His suits come from Dillard’s and he’s never bought a new car for himself.

Most of his life revolved around higher education, but it didn’t make him snobbish. After all, one of his best friends only had a sixth-grade education. They met while fighting in World War II, and both received similar honors during the war – except that Audie Murphy received the Medal of Honor. Murphy became the most-decorated living combat soldier from World War II because of that medal. Etheredge was the second.

“I’m the only poor bastard that lived to get three Silver Stars,” he said.

When Murphy was killed in a plane crash in May 1971, Etheredge’s colleagues at SHSU volunteered to take over his work for a few days so he could attend the funeral. He arrived at the cemetery four hours before Murphy’s burial, and wandered among the graves to pass the time. He wanted to be strong and composed before seeing Pamela, Murphy’s wife.

During the service, Etheredge joined other prominent U.S. military officials, including Gen. William Westmoreland, in paying last respects to their wartime buddy. Standing next to Pamela, Etheredge’s face was calm and devoid of emotion – until the bugler began the first few notes of “Taps.” With Murphy dead, Etheredge was now the most-decorated living WWII combat veteran.

Excusing himself from Pamela’s side, he walked away from the burial with tears streaming down his face.

“Damn ‘Taps’ just tears me up,” he says.

Etheredge keeps many photos of himself and Murphy hanging on the walls of his two-story home. One of his favorites is adorned in a simple black frame, and is signed by Murphy: “To M.B. – Needless to say buddy, I am an Ethredge [sic] man.” In the office adjoining his garage, Etheredge has more photos of himself and Murphy. Slowly going down the line, he points his finger at each one. “That’s me and Murphy. That’s me and Murphy. That’s me and Murphy,” he says, pausing to look closely at each photograph as if he’s reliving the moment captured by unnamed photographers.

He likes talking about his war experiences. Ferol Robinson, 89, worked with Etheredge at Sam Houston. He recalls asking students how Etheredge’s class went many times, often receiving replies like, “We landed in Anzio again.”

Thompson says that when she was growing up, her father’s war experiences were never a topic of household conversation.

“I never heard him talk too much about that until he was a lot older,” she says. “As he ages, that time in his life just jumps out at him.”

Jones says that even though he likes to talk, he doesn’t like reliving the war moments visually. “He don’t want to watch the war on TV,” she says. “It does something to him. It brings back too many memories.”

At 5 p.m., it’s time to stop talking and have a drink. Tonight, his drink of choice is Seagram’s whisky. He fills a tumbler full of the amber liquid and adds a splash of 7-Up. Outside, it may be wet and cold, but inside, the former colonel reclines back on his couch, enjoying his drink and warming his body next to the still-crackling flames of the fire he built a few hours earlier. Tomorrow, his lady friend will come to see him. Maybe the rain will subside and they can go fishing again.

His eyes are drawn to a metal plaque that is built into his fireplace. He’s always loved the message:

Old Wood to Burn

Old Wine to Drink

Old Books to Read

Old Friends to Trust.

As evening turns to night, he reflects on all the people he’s come across in his lifetime. Time and time again, he says, people have been so nice to him that it’s almost embarrassing. And after all his experiences, Etheredge says he is amazed to still be around to talk about it.

Houstonian editor Shawn Farrell also contributed to this story.

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