Lee Collins will be 99 this November and he has lived an amazing 99 years, filled with many different kinds of service to others and spiced with occasional adventures. He had an adventure on Sept. 20 that celebrated his service during World War II; he took part in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. to visit the World War II Memorial.
Honor Flight is a nonprofit program created in Ohio in May 2005 to honor veterans by taking them to see their country’s tribute to their bravery. The WWII Memorial was dedicated in 2004, nearly 60 years after the war ended and too late for many of those it salutes to visit it easily. The local Honor Flight Chapter in Conyers hosted its inaugural trip for veterans in 2011.
Lee’s great niece, Dr. Renee Foutz of Milwaukee, learned about Honor Flight, applied for him to make the trip, and joined him as his escort from Conyers to Washington, D.C. and back on Sept. 20. As Lee will tell you, Honor Flight is like no other trip.
Every effort is made to keep the veterans, many of whom have become fragile with age, comfortable and healthy during the travel and tours. They are also treated as the heroes they are throughout the trip. As they loaded the buses before daylight, there were cheers of well wishers and patriotic music played by the Rockdale County High School Band. The Rockdale County Sheriff’s Department, Newton County Sheriff’s Department and the Patriot Guard Riders of Georgia, a motorcycle group, escorted the buses from Conyers to the Atlanta airport.
Lee’s military service began before World War II. In 1940 he went through basic training and served in the U.S. Army National Guard for one year. He was working in a factory in Sheffield, Ala. when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he wanted to get back into the military to defend the U.S.
On a visit to his uncle in Nashville, Tenn., he talked with a U.S. Coast Guard recruiter. Lee was impressed that the recruiter asked if he had finished high school and if he was born in the United States, whereas other recruiters had not been very interested in his education or background. He joined the Coast Guard and went first to New Orleans and then to St. Augustine, Fla. when he spent almost two years training people. Then he served on the coast of Virginia as a member of two ships’ complements and eventually worked in training at Treasure Island in California.
Lee was out at sea when peace was declared. Since he had already served for several years, he was discharged and headed home to Lawrenceburg, Tenn. With the encouragement of his father, who was a singer, Lee headed to New York City to pursue a career in music.
The music teacher with whom he studied introduced him to his future wife, Cordelia. Lee said that as well as being beautiful and a wonderful person, she was also a very fine musician. She sang in many fine churches in the Manhattan area. They were married in about 1949 and enjoyed many years together until she passed away in 2014.
Finding it rough to get into the commercial entertainment world, Lee enrolled at the prestigious school of music at Columbia University and earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts and his Masters. He sang for a company out of Chicago and was given a choice of faculty positions at three universities, one of which was Tift College.
“Dr. Vinzant offered me a job and I remained for 28 years,” said Lee.
He and Cordelia came to Forsyth in 1954. Cordelia thought she would be a housewife but quickly became “bored stiff.” After returning to New York to work for the remainder of the school year, she was hired as bookkeeper at Trio Manufacturing and worked there almost 30 years.
Although Lee and Cordelia did not have biological children, they had a huge family of young ladies who attended Tift College, especially those in the school choir, and a large extended family among those who attended First Baptist Forsyth as well as others in the community. Lee was called upon to conduct the adult choir at the church off and on, whenever the church was between music ministers. He remembers the deacons coming to his back yard to tell him he would be conducting the choir and would be paid $65 per month.
Lee keeps up with many of his former students at Tift and is proud of their accomplishments. Several of them had careers as teachers, professors and performers.
“There were many young ladies with fine voices,” said Lee.
“He could get more music out of girls who couldn’t sing!” said Carey Russell, who sang in the Tift College choir under Lee’s direction, as did her two sisters.
While at Tift, Lee returned to Columbia University to work on his doctorate for a while. Although he didn’t complete the degree, he said he “learned quite a bit.”
After he retired from Tift, Lee developed another creative career in woodworking, picking up the craft first as a hobby from his brother. Many homes throughout Monroe County, and beyond, are proud owners of his rockers, Adirondack chairs, cradles, cabinets, benches, rocking horses and all kinds of furniture. He even built two houses.
Lee and Bob Buckley teamed up to work together as ‘Two Old Men and a Saw’ for several years.
WHEN LEE Collins talked about the Honor Flight after the trip, he made a point to thank everyone who made it possible for him. Of course there was his great niece, Renee, who flew to Conyers from Wisconsin to escort him. There was nephew Bill Hopwood who came from Knoxville, Tenn. to pick up Renee at the Atlanta airport and bring her to Conyers. Renee’s parents, Roy and Jill Foutz, and her sister picked up Lee in Forsyth and got him to and from Conyers. Roy also brought him two Coast Guard caps to wear on the trip. Dr. Jim Buff of Forsyth brought Lee other clothes for the trip.
Lee said the bus driver who took the veterans and their escorts from the Conyers American Legion Post to the airport at about 4:15 a.m. was phenomenal. “He drove it like a kiddie care,” said Lee. He said there were about 24 veterans in his group, including one woman and one man who is 100. There was one other Coast Guard veteran.
They flew Delta Airlines, loading before the other passengers and receiving excellent treatment both going to Washington, D.C. and on the return flight.
“They were so courteous,” Lee said. “They thanked each one of us as we got off.”
There were special wheelchairs for the veterans that fit the aisles of the plane. At first Lee had hoped to use a walker on the trip, but he came to appreciate the convenience of the wheel chairs, which he said were comfortable. He said Renee did a good job of moving him around.
As well as the WWII Memorial, the group visited the Iwo Jima Memorial, Korean Memorial and Vietnam Memorial. Lee said that every state and every territory of the United States is represented in the WWII Memorial. He said he was probably most impressed by the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“If you weren’t inspired by that, something is wrong with you,” Lee said.
He described how the five soldiers involved clicked their heels and exchanged arms. He said one reason he was so impressed was that while he was in the National Guard he was assigned the duty of guarding the colors at one time.
“We were at attention and marched back and forth but not with the acuteness, precision,” said Lee. “They are specially selected--size, attitude. That is their duty.”
He was also awed by Arlington Cemetery. “It’s almost full, and it goes for miles--generals, admirals, sailors,” he said. “Just think of the ones in Europe and Asia, and the men lost in ships at the bottom of the sea.”
HONOR FLIGHT takes place in just one day, leaving from American Legion Post 77 in Conyers at 4:15 a.m. and returning to the post at 10:45 p.m. that evening. That day creates a host of memories for everyone involved and brings back a lifetime of memories to those who served in the military in their youth and have continued to serve in other ways during the decades since.
Veterans Day program is Nov. 11
Monroe County Veterans Day Program will be Friday, Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. at the Veterans Memorial on the courthouse lawn. The program will recognize all veterans in all branches of U.S. Military Service, with special recognition of those who have had pavers engraved in their honor or memory added to the memorial this year. Newly-elected Towaliga District Attorney Jonathan Adams will be the keynote speaker, and there will be special music for the occasion. The UDC and DAR will provide refreshments after the program.