—by Bill Haglund
Most, if not all, of you reading this column will have never heard of Gary, even though he’s an American hero who was born and raised in Iowa.
A few years older than I, Gary grew up in Iowa Falls. By the time he was a high school football star, I was about 12 years old. In those days before telephones kept everyone within earshot, I remember anxiously awaiting the mid-week daily newspaper, an afternoon paper, which had a list of the state’s best football performances from the previous week.
There, often as not, I’d see his name. Gary had led Iowa Falls and rushed for 129 yards, 133 yards, 151 yards, even more, as the Cadets had beaten a rival school. Religiously, I cut those lists from the paper, underlined Gary’s name, and pasted each clipping in a scrapbook. Somewhere through nearly 60 years, that scrapbook has disappeared.
Gary was enough older than I that he spent some of his formative younger years living the events of World War II. Even then, he told his parents, he would one day fly airplanes, too. He never lost that desire.
When he graduated from Iowa Falls High School in the mid-1950s, he enlisted in the Air Force. Once, he nearly died following an automobile accident near Minot, N.D., where he was stationed. But, Gary recovered. Unsatisfied with his enlisted status, he applied for Officer Candidate School. Few doubted he’d be accepted.
As physically fit as anyone could be, Gary easily went through OCS and earned his wings. Just as he boasted as a child, he’d become an Air Force pilot.
Sent off to battle in Vietnam, Gary flew 72 combat missions. He returned home each time.
During his time in the Air Force, Gary was stationed in Great Falls, Mont. That’s where he met the love of his life, Rachel. It wasn’t hard to understand, then, why Gary returned to Montana after his discharge. It wasn’t hard to believe that he remained in the Montana Air National Guard and it wasn’t hard to believe that he quickly rose through the ranks.
Soon, he became the civilian head of the Montana Air National Guard. At the same time, he became a Major and continued rising through the ranks.
Training flights often took Gary away from the Montana borders. On occasion those flights took Gary back into Iowa air space. On those that would carry him within easy flight distance of Iowa Falls, he’d notify his parents. They, along with all the neighbors, would be out in the front yard watching as Gary flew over, dipping his wings as he passed.
Once his regular flying days ended, he settled into daily life with the Montana Air Guard, eventually moving to Helena, where the state headquarters lie. By the time he retired, Gary had become a Major General Gary C. Blair – not bad for a kid from Iowa Falls who dreamt one day of flying.
We didn’t see much of Gary through the years. But, many times when he returned to Iowa, there would be a family gathering. I was always proud of my older cousin. His mother, Ruth, was just a year or so older than my mother, Lela, and they were not only sisters, but best of friends so the families spent many weekends together as eight children in the two families grew. Ruth is now 94, but was able to travel back to Montana for Gary’s final days.
He spent much of the last year between his home and Rochester, Minn., battling a deadly cancer. Seventy-two times he flew into enemy territory on a bombing mission. Seventy-two times he returned home safely.
Only once in his life was he afflicted with cancer. This war hero who earned a list of military medals longer than most arms couldn’t return from that final "flight." It took his life last week and I read his name again.
It didn’t read, "Gary Blair, Iowa Falls, 151 yards vs. Hampton." This time, it read "Major General Gary C. Blair died at home …"
(Bill Haglund is a retired staff writer for the Boone News Republican and Dallas County News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)