I recently attended the Memorial Service of W. Parker Greene of Valdosta, Georgia. A former Army Corporal, furniture businessman and father/husband from an obscure Southern town, anyone who did not know him is sure to wonder why the highest ranking officer in the United States Air Force, the Mayor, State Chief of the Highway Patrol and a number of other dignitaries, including over 3,000 people, would show up to celebrate the life of this 87-year old Southern Gentleman. And therein lies the secret of greatness of Parker.
Parker did not hail from any powerful family. He was not a great business leader who commanded millions of dollars. He was not a politician in any sort of way, as I never saw him disparage an opposing view or another person, and he sought no elected office other than within the walls of his own home when they voted to determine who did the dishes. Yet with this ‘light’ resume for power, Parker was able to move mountains when he felt the cause was right.
I first met Parker and his lovely wife Dr. Lucy over ten years ago when we first moved to Valdosta and Moody Air Force Base. In our makeshift, temporary buildings as we moved our entire unit from North Carolina to Georgia, he met with the few of us first to arrive in my boss’ office, and I was asked to go fetch a few boxes of ‘stuff’ from his trunk. Those boxes were full of South Georgia Pecans—shelled, candied and chocolate covered. With a thick Southern accent that demonstrated no rush to do anything, he welcomed us to Valdosta and asked each of us personally what he could do for us. Very pleasant, but I did not think much of it other than a simple feeling of appreciation, as I’d been welcomed many times before from local leaders. I soon found out that his offer and question was much more than I’d ever experienced.
Mere months after our arrival, one of our young Airmen and his family suffered a terrible loss through a house fire. While the rest of us dealt with the basics of the loss, Parker and Dr. Lucy worked the phones and knocked on doors of their friends. Within the first 24 hours, they had raised enough money to replace nearly everything of value for that family, and cut through the bureaucracy to help get them moving towards a new house within days. This was just the first of many examples of how effective Parker and Dr. Lucy were. Some of the most senior leaders in the country regularly called upon them for advice, and they regularly had access to the highest offices in the land.
I was affected personally by Parker and Dr. Lucy’s kindness and tenacity the second time I moved to Valdosta. My son needed regular, systemic care for a terminal illness, care that would allow him to finish college and live a much fuller life for the time he had left. As was often the case with our numerous moves, the red tape of state health care was my wife’s full-time job as we settled in and tried to get our son settled in school. At a social function, my wife shared a small piece of her frustration with the MEDICAID admin offices with Dr. Lucy, thinking nothing of her inadvertent comment until she received a call the next day from the MEDICAID offices, saying that Andrew’s paperwork was complete and accepted, and he’d be receiving the needed care within the next few days. The phone call we did not hear was one of the Greene’s calling the office and asking how they could help, then not letting the issue die until it was resolved to their liking. My example is not an exception. He and his wife regularly took care of large base and community issues while seeing to the needs of even the youngest of Airmen and their families. He did not reserve his kindness and persistence for the powerful and well-connected.
How was this possible? How was he able to, on a regular basis, move mountains to take care of people, take care of Moody Air Force Base, and leave such an indelible mark on so many? Simple—selfless, servant leadership who never once cared who received the credit for acts of kindness or impact on what he saw as “the mission”.
Parker’s mission in life was to take care of others. He would often say, “It is not about us,” and he meant it. He held a number of titles in the Lowndes County/Valdosta area, most all of which revolved around Moody Air Force Base . I know he loved the Air Force and his country, but I saw it more as a vehicle for him to manifest the kind of person he was, the kind of love he had for his fellow man. He received many honorary titles, but he shied away from the recognition. The only recognition he ever seemed to want was to know that his efforts were not in vain.
Christ taught us to follow him, to exemplify him and how he lived his life. We were taught to love our neighbor as ourselves, to turn the other cheek, and to never give up on the one. The study of scripture helps to understand what that means, but a friendship with a quiet, South Georgia gentleman has helped me even more. He gave me a visual of what those words mean. Thank you my friend. ‘Til we meet again.