I've had a few regrets in my life. One of them is that I never got to meet Doc in person.
When you write a newspaper column for a number of years you find yourself with what I call Regulars. Like regulars at a bar, they show up in your inbox every so often to give you an attaboy or a piece of their mind. Doc was a Regular.
Doc loved reading newspapers. He once told me, "I'm glad you and others chose journalism, as there would be a hole in my life if the papers stopped appearing on my lawn every morning." Oh, what our industry wouldn't give for a few million Docs right now.
Doc was also a military man. I think the first time he e-mailed me was after I wrote a column about Medal of Honor recipients. He'd known a recipient personally, so he felt a connection.
Knowing he'd be interested, I sent him some other columns I wrote on military subjects and told him I would try to dig up a rather long story I wrote once on wounded veterans. He told me he would appreciate it. When I finally came across a copy I got him to send me his address. I started to drop it by his house, since he lived out in my neck of the woods. But I got busy with something and just mailed it instead.
Amazing how regretful such little decisions can become because never once during our e-mails did Doc ever mention that he was sick.
And he had ample opportunity. I wrote a column once about how I thought it was wrong that people sued tobacco companies because everyone knows that stuff is bad for you and it's a matter of choice and personal responsibility, not blame. Doc agreed. He wrote me: "I'm one of those who indulges'
I know the hazards. My wife knows I do not wish her to sue anyone or any company if I croak
When I wrote about being tired of hearing about the swine flu Doc echoed that, too, saying "There must be more newsworthy stories out there." Again, never a word about him being ill.
I learned that Doc flew with the U.S. Army during Vietnam. When I tried to get him to open up about his combat experiences he would say very little, telling me that he "had a yellow streak up my back whenever in combat, especially when being shot at." I think Doc might have fibbed a little about that though. They don't give Bronze Stars and Meritorious Service Medals to guys with yellow streaks.
In fact, I think modesty may have been in abundant supply in Doc. When I wrote about my 10-year anniversary at the paper, this man who'd been shot at in Vietnam, who'd volunteered for combat flights in the Persian Gulf, who'd earned military medals and commendations actually told me he had "no reportable accomplishments in life." I beg to differ, Doc.
Doc spent 22 years in the service and another 16 working for it, until he no longer could. Doc, of course, never told me that last part.
But beyond his service to his country, Doc was one of those who "got it."
He was respectful, gracious and straightforward. He seemed to understand the philosophy that it's not about choosing one side or the other every time, it's about choosing what's right.
In that same e-mail about my anniversary with the paper, Doc showed me that most of all, he understood the simplicity of the secret of life:
"My joys in life now are sitting on the back patio. Watching the birds and hummingbirds at their feeders, the squirrels gathering nuts and scampering up the trees, and the cats trying to catch them. Mostly the quiet and solitude of choosing to be alone when I want to be (or) visiting with neighbors.
I'll think of you when I have my evening martini, and hope that when you retire you have as much joy in your life as I have in mine."
Chief Warrant Officer John "Doc" Willingham (Ret.) of Winder died Sunday after an extended illness. Despite what he may have told you, he had many "reportable accomplishments in life."
E-mail Nate McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Friday.