Farewell to the Greatest Generation:
A Requiem for my Father


We are losing them left and right now, that valiant age group that Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation. A thousand World War Two veterans die every day.

Today it was our father, Charles Jolliffe. You may not have known him, but you surely know someone like him. He’s your grandfather, your father, your uncle or your neighbor. Read and see whether you recognize in him someone you love and value.

Born in the mid-1920s, he embraced the great inventions of the time, beginning with radio. Like many a small-town boy, he joined the Boy Scouts, who in this era worked closely with the U.S. Army and Navy. After World War I, air attacks were still feared, and our military saw the need for a wide network of trained young radio engineers. The armed forces held summer training camps in radio code transmission for the Scouts. The Boy Scouts would be a sort of “emergency broadcast system” and the safety of the United States would rest on “the foot or bicycle speed of young boys,” as the Navy put it.

Charles was lucky in his father Laurence, who supported both his scouting (by being assistant troop leader) and his inventiveness. Laurence built his own radio transmitter (not receiver) and later his own television in 1938, though his daughter Charlotte points out “there was little to see in those days.”

Herbert Hoover, as Commerce Secretary, praised “the genius of American boys” and Charles Jolliffe’s parents agreed. Chuck ate up his oatmeal to get the Quaker Oats tin that was the basis of the first home “crystal radios” that kids of his era made. Wrapped in copper wire, with a few more bits added, the oatmeal tin became a radio receiver.

Soon, Charles’s mother would admonish the younger kids in the family to “be quiet—Charles is upstairs saving the family,” as my uncle Joe Jolliffe once told me.

The Great Depression had come, and every kid who could find work did work. For Chuck, it was helping out in his parents’ photography studio in Winchester, Virginia, where he learned another new technology—the early printing of color photographs using trays of colored chemical gels. For other youths, it was bagging groceries or delivering the weekly Saturday Evening Post, trundling through their neighborhoods with Radio Flyer wagonloads of the magazines.

In the late 1930s, dire events in Europe came second for Chuck to his father’s death, from the new antibiotic wonderdrug, “Sulfa.” Hospitalized for pneumonia, Laurence was given massive doses of the new medicine, but he was allergic to it and died in 1940.

For Charles Jolliffe, the disaster of his father’s death soon led to his enlistment in the U.S. Navy. There was patriotism and conviction. There was also the opportunity for college without becoming a drain on the family finances. The Navy sent him off to Duke University, along with a large cohort of other new recruits, to learn more about their most critical technology, radio.

Fortunately for Chuck and his classmates, the War ended before their graduation, and they went home to civilian lives of marrying, having families, living frugally, and working hard. Chuck became the radio engineer for WINC, a Winchester, Va., station, and WRFL, in Front Royal. He once hiked miles in a blizzard to get WRFL back on the air. He bore the frostbite marks on his ears the rest of his life.

Always hungry for new knowledge, especially if it involved machines, Chuck embraced the arrival of television with gusto. Others quickly bought the new devices for their living rooms, but Chuck also filled his home workshop with television tubes, spools of wire, and capacitors. Where other kids’ dads had woodworking or auto repair tools on the workbench, Chuck had his voltage meters, too.

But television engineers garnered about as much respect then as “info tech” people do now. They know the technology, but they’re the “repair guy,” not the inventor Chuck had wanted to be. A friend told him DuPont was looking for scientists, and luckily, Chuck Jolliffe was one they hired. It was an age of big factories and rapid growth, and men married, as Chuck married Jackie McNabb, had kids, as Chuck had his three, and worked hard to support their homes and families.

It was also an era when “transfers” became common as American industry grew and moved its workforce around the country at will. IBM was known in the 1960s as “I’ve Been Moved.” For Chuck, it was to be a DuPont transfer to Circleville, Ohio, where he worked long hours at the DuPont plant there perfecting the machinery and control systems to make Mylar, which we know as cassette tape, video tape, and shiny helium balloons for celebrations. He grasped his dream of being an inventor with numerous patents on Mylar-making processes. It was the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, when men carried the financial weight for their families and the work was not only something they were proud of but something they did for love of family.

Like other dads of the time, Chuck had his hobbies—repairing and sailing an old Comet with a wooden hull and iron centerboard, making wine (and pouring the bad batches down the bathtub), building new technical toys like a reel-to-reel tape deck, and building old toys like his own archery bows. The neighbor kids’ dads were the same—Vicky Radcliff’s dad with his pool table and pinball machines, Christy Dresbach’s dad with his perfect-lawn obsession—kept not by chemicals but by his kids digging the dandelions, Denise Ferguson’s dad with his huge vegetable garden, where the bamboo poles grew faster than the peas planted around them.

Like other dads of his generation, Chuck made time for his family—road trips to the seashore and the mountains, always with binoculars and nature guides, hiking at Hargus Lake, joining Indian Guides with his son. The Indian Guides had rocket launch contests, and oh, how those two loved to blow things up. They were in guy heaven!

Like other kids of the time, we recognized our dad Chuck in tv programs, like Fred McMurray on “My Three Sons,” in snatches of dialogue in Jimmy Stewart movies, and later in moments of “The Wonder Years.” How appropriate to see him in the programs on television, a technology he loved (though the programming he could usually do without).

In later years, he survived his wife Jackie’s slow losing battle against cancer, his kids’ teenaged rebellions and adult-life crises (always ready with encouragement or a bit of needed cash), and his second wife’s irrecoverable stroke.

Like many of The Greatest Generation, he took his marriage vows seriously, and when his second wife Betty needed care 24/7, he was the caregiver. His children protested the huge load on an 80+-year-old and he would accept no help. This was his job and he would do it. The chief nurse for his doctor in Circleville said, “You can’t imagine how many elderly couples are in the same situation. I could name you a hundred easily just in Pickaway County.” Medicare, you see, doesn’t cover nonreversible illness with its day-to-day care, and Medicaid requires our stubborn elders to spend down their life savings, which they don’t feel at all secure about doing.

Indeed, you who are reading this probably know some of those couples, living at home and struggling through adversity. They were and are our Greatest Generation. They will refuse your helpful offers and insist on self-sufficiency. But don’t listen. Take them good meals. Like my dad’s fine neighbors, mow their lawn when they aren’t looking, blow their leaves and shovel their walkways. It’s our last chance to say “thank you” for that youth of sacrifices and their adulthoods of cheerfully carried duty that they gave us so willingly. Their era is almost gone. Cherish it while you may.

 (As the hometown newspapers who published this put it:  Lee Jolliffe, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Journalism at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her father Charles Jolliffe died December 26th, 2009, after difficult surgery and a valiant fight to survive it.)