Gail Sparrow honors the greatest generation

March 2009 cover story Gail Sparrow. Photos by Rainy Chastine

March 2009 cover story Gail Sparrow. Photos by Rainy Chastine

Gail Sparrow grew up in the middle of history. Her father, a World War II Navy veteran, was the director of the Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center during the 1960s. Gail could walk through the woods to the Little White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Georgia home. She lived in one of the houses located around the hospital, and her neighborhood pool was the historic therapy pool where FDR would swim to ease the pain in his polio-stricken legs. When Governor Jimmy Carter announced his run for the presidency from the front porch steps of the Little White House, Gail was in the crowd.

Gail’s parents raised her to be patriotic and altruistic and to answer the question, ‘What can I do for my country?’ “We had a tradition of public service,” she says. “We were always taught to give back to our community—to be productive citizens.”

After graduating from the University of Georgia, Gail taught third and fourth grade, while her husband George attended law school at Mercer. But she left teaching to stay home with her two sons, George III and Gregory, and never expected to return. The family moved to Fayette County in 1980; and in 1990 with her children nearly grown, Gail began looking for something to fill her days.

“If anyone had said to me when I was a child, ‘You’re going to be a history teacher when you grow up,’ I would have said, ‘Not me!’ But once I was older, I realized I enjoyed current events; and government fascinated me.” Gail says she stumbled into teaching Georgia Studies—a combination of Georgia history and government that is very U.S. history based—to 8th graders at Flat Rock Middle School. With that, she was hooked on teaching history. “I wanted my students to love history. I wanted them to get involved. I wanted them to taste it, smell it, hear it, and feel it.”

Gail’s students rarely used the textbook. Instead, she immersed them in activities—a mock legislature, where the students ran everything in the school for three days; mock elections, anytime there was an election; and mock trials. They even put on a 1920s stock market where they had money, had to invest it, and then, depending on what bank they invested it in, had to watch it fail. Gail used any exercise she could imagine to make her students appreciate history and its relevancy to their lives. Her efforts were recognized. Because of the mock legislatures she had staged, Governor Sonny Perdue signed changes to the Hope Scholarship bill in 2003 at an assembly at her school.

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Gail Sparrow (r) with former “Fayette Woman” Helen Denton, who served as secretary to Gen. Eisenhower and typed up D-Day orders.

Connie Hale, a former Fayette County school board member, knew Gail as a teacher. “She was a gem, a prize,” says Connie. “Gail was one of those teachers who has made the Fayette County school system so successful.”

Gail frequently asked war veterans to come to her class to be interviewed by her students. “I felt it was important that students understand the sacrifice our veterans had made. Their sacrifice was what had made this country strong. If we didn’t have people willing to go out there and put their life on the line for this country, we wouldn’t have our country as we know it—or our democracy.”

Although she had touched many lives as a teacher, little did Gail realize how providential her love of history and her teaching practices would be. When she retired from the classroom in 2007, Gail thought the majority of her time would be spent at the beach in Destin, a place she had traveled to at every opportunity for the last 20 years.

But somehow Gail Sparrow got caught up in history again.

“I heard about this thing called Honor Flight. I found out that Valdosta had an Honor Flight and I called them to learn how they had organized it.”

Honor Flight Network is a national non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. The network raises funds and then transports veterans absolutely free to Washington D.C. to visit monuments erected in their honor. Top priority is given to the senior veterans—World War II survivors who want to visit the World War II Memorial.

Gail tapped a longtime friend, Brenda Smith, to help her. “Gail had only been retired a few months when she told me she had a dream to start an Honor Flight. I now tell her that I will never say ‘yes’ again without a six-page, single-spaced contract with my duties,” laughs Brenda. “We had no clue as to what we were getting ourselves into, but we set to work.”

Through the Valdosta Honor Flight, Gail connected with Mark Buckner, another Fayette County resident who was interested in starting an Honor Flight chapter. They realized that the legwork they had each done meshed, and soon the two were organizing Honor Flight Fayette. “I couldn’t have done this without Gail,” says Mark. “Her time, energy and effort are unmatched. She takes on more than she will admit and more time than most people would devote. She makes the commitment and gets the job done.”

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Receiving a proclamation from Commission Chairman Jack Smith declaring May 14th as Honor Flight Fayette Day are (right to left): Gail Sparrow, President; Brenda Smith, Publicity Chair and Mark Buckner, Vice President. Mrs. Sparrow refers to them as the “3 Musketeers” as they were the founding members of Honor Flight.

A board of directors was established in November 2007. The group did not know how long it would take to raise money or where and how they were going to find veterans, but they knew time was of the essence.

“To get the word out, I talked to anybody who would let me come and stand in front of their group,” recalls Gail. “We worked 24 hours a day. My husband told me, ‘I don’t see you as much as I did before you retired.’”

“Gail is hard to keep up with,” laughs her husband George. “If she had taught English instead of history, she would have had the same vigor. She’s a people person. She reaches out and excites people with her enthusiasm. It’s like she’s saying, ‘Come in and enjoy this with me.’ Whether it’s her marriage, raising her children, teaching history, Honor Flight, all the pieces of her life, she has a joy and a commitment in everything she does.”

“It takes time and determination to put this together,” admits Gail. “But I’m going to tell you, there has been divine guidance in this as well. I feel like I have leaped out over a huge cliff in faith because there were days when I was literally on my knees saying, ‘I need guidance, I need help,’ and then there were times when perseverance was what worked.”

Gail realized that she would have to get community involvement for the project to be successful, but she was always confident that the people of Fayette County would support it. “From the beginning, I thought, ‘I have the experience to put this together because I’ve taken 13-year-olds on overnight field trips,’” she laughs. “But also, I knew from my experience teaching that Fayette County people would want to help.”

And they have. People have donated money, time and needed items. “People automatically realized that it was a short-term project that had to be tackled immediately because of the ages of the veterans,” says Gail.

In just six months, the inaugural Honor Flight Fayette took wing with 70 veterans, plus guardians, staff and support. A total group of 110 boarded an Air Tran flight early on May 14, 2008, to spend approximately three hours at the war memorial before returning home.

Honor Flight Fayette went on to organize two more trips in 2008, taking a total of 212 veterans to the monument. The daylong trip (free to the veteran) costs about $400 per veteran and includes airfare, three meals, a t-shirt and a book about the memorial. After passing under the crossed swords of the Sandy Creek High School Air Force JROTC, the group leaves its meeting place in Fayette County in motor coaches escorted by police cars and the motorcycle Patriot Guard. In Washington, soldiers from Fort Dix come to help out for the day, and congressional members join the group to honor the veterans.

“I did Honor Flight because I wanted to do it for veterans, but what I have gotten out of it is a renewed faith in the American public. If you could see the response when we’re out in public on this trip. People come up to these vets and thank them and shake their hand. They are clapping and yelling. It’s just amazing. People from Fayette County fly up at their own expense and are there at Reagan just to help. It speaks well of the community, and it is a wonderful testament to the American spirit.”

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“…Honor Flight is determined to find every World War II vet who wants a free trip to see the magnificent memorial that honors them.”

Veterans who apply to go on the trip are mostly from Fayette County but can come from anywhere. They have been between 80 and 93 years old. “One 91-year-old had never flown before,” recalls Gail. “He had been in the Navy and had only traveled by train and ship.” And the trip can only be taken in the spring or fall because the cold of winter and the heat of summer are too much for the veterans to bear.

Connie Hale has been a guardian on all three Honor flights. “Gail brings that same enthusiasm to Honor Flight as she brought to teaching. On the bus ride through Arlington Cemetery, she acts as a tour guide, telling the history of the places we pass. She brings history to life. The vets just eat it up. It’s like she’s back in front of the classroom.”

“You can’t hardly make this trip without some tears,” admits Gail. “I wonder sometimes what they are thinking. I’m sure some of them are remembering some pretty rough stuff, but we focus on a celebration of who they are and their dedication and service to our country. I watch their faces to see their reactions and am certain that we have been successful in honoring them. And I am humbled by them because I’m one of the Baby Boomers who has reaped all the freedoms from what they did.”

As Honor Flight plans its fourth trip coming up this spring, Gail says they are seeking out vets through churches and other organizations. Many applicants come from over the Internet. There’s no one place to go to find out who all the vets are in the county, but Honor Flight is determined to find every World War II vet who wants a free trip to see the magnificent memorial that honors them.

Gail sighs when she thinks about her boat in Destin and the long lazy days she looks forward to spending on it. “In the morning I take my coffee, get on my boat and watch the dolphins. In the evening, it’s a glass of wine and a sunset cruise. I love the ocean. It allows me a respite.”

As Gail puts it, she thought when she retired that she was going to “park it at the beach,” but Honor Flight has been rewarding, and there is a since of urgency in what she is doing—there are only so many autumns and springs left.

“We are losing our WWII veterans at a pace of 1,200 to 1,500 per day. Before you know it, we will be recognizing the last living WWII vet. It’s startling. In every one of their faces that I look into, I know there is a story. They are old now, but they went to war at age 18 or so. They were just boys. Not much older than the kids I once taught. The majesty of their memorial captures the majesty of their character. They are, after all, the greatest generation.”

The beach can wait for Gail Sparrow, but these men and women can’t. Her father would be proud. The president whose pool she swam in as a girl would be proud. The girl from Warm Springs knows her history. She understands the ticking of the clock and the passing of time. And she knows that time does not wait for anyone.

If you would like more information on Honor Flight, go to www.honorflightfayette.org.

 

Sherri Smith Brown

I am a freelance writer and video producer. I love to research, explore and travel so most of my work focuses on travel destinations. I have co-authored several guidebooks to Georgia with my husband, Fred Brown, and we have a website called BrownsGuides.com. I write blogs for BrownsGuides.com about travel resources in Peachtree City, my hometown, as well as neighboring Senoia, Georgia. I also have my own website at sherrismithbrown.com. Best of all, I am mother and a grandmother – and I love that!

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