A Story of an American Treasure for this Fourth of July.
by Phil Spaugy
On this Fourth of July, I find myself reflecting of two days in Gettysburg spent with Ed Bearss, and of the many subjects discussed and lessons learned. However, I keep coming back to one shining impression of his presence: The attraction of the people to him, and his gentlemanly grace in responding to them.
People wanted to meet him, shake his hand, and thank him for his service to our country, as both a World War II Marine, wounded in action, and as Chief Historian of the National Park Service, of which he is now Chief Historian Emeritus. They wanted their picture taken with him, or to introduce their children to him, so that someday they could say they met the great Ed Bearss. But, above all, was his respect and appreciation for the Living Historians of the 151st Pennsylvania and the 1st South Carolina, for their passionate dedication in visually presenting the history of our American Civil War to the public. I was struck by how the faces of these historians would light up when they met Ed and he would question them about their unit or their kit, where they were from, and many other questions that made them feel that Ed was, in fact, learning from and about them. And, in Ed’s eyes, what they were doing was so very important to him. It was simply amazing how important this 93-year-old man was to so many people. I have never seen the likes of it before, and don’t believe I will again.
As Ed and I walked to lunch from his talk on the events of the First Day at Gettsyburg, I asked him if he noticed how important both his presence and kind words of praise and encouragement were to these living historians. Ed stopped, drew himself up ramrod straight, pondered the question for a moment, and said, “Phil, this great country has given me so much, this is my way to repay the debt I owe her.” And then he moved on ahead, this 93-year-old Marine, marching ever onward with his eye on his sole mission…to repay his debt to “this great country” of ours.
As for me, I watched him move on, stunned by the tears of emotion running down my cheeks, as I realized once again that I was in the presence of a truly great American treasure, one of which we may never see the likes of again.