By Hardy Jackson
On Memorial Day I think of Max Gillis.
I never met him. All I have is the picture in an old copy of Clarkala, the yearbook published by Clarke County High School. There he is.
Forever young, handsome, dark wavy hair, looking out at the world of 1931 with all the confidence of an about-to-graduate senior.
Under his name they listed his accomplishments. “President of the Student Body. Varsity Football, Basketball, Baseball. Captain of the Football Team. Best Looking, Who’s Who.”
“A good football player and a true sport.”
Of course, no one in his small home town was surprised at this. Max Gillis was born to be just what he was. Son of a prominent family, he was simply and effortlessly living up to community expectations.
His father had represented the county in the legislature where he became known for yearly introducing for defeat legislation to bring horse racing back to Alabama.
Rep. Gillis, unlike some people running around today, believed that education was a right and that the state should not charge students for it.
Back then, at the end of the year, some schools levied a “matriculation fee,” ($1.50 where the Gillis children attended), and if you did not pay it, you did not get your report card, which certified that you had passed. A sorta education poll tax. Now this put a hardship on poor families, especially those with many children, and was probably a factor that contributed to the high dropout rate.
Well Rep. Gillis refused to pay it.
And in the fall, when school started, his children had to take an exam to prove that they were accomplished enough to enter the next grade.
Which they took.
And which they passed.
Good thing too, for if Max’s older brother, Grant, had not graduated he would not have gone to the University of Alabama and played football, would not have run, passed, received, and punted the Tide to victory in the 1925 Rose Bowl and where would that have left us.
Think about it.
Max did not follow in his brother’s footsteps.
Instead he went to Atlanta, got a job in one of the companies there, and from all reports, did what the top graduate in his class was supposed to do, which was just fine.
But I don’t think about all this when I think about Max Gillis.
No, I think of Max Gillis as one of the thousands of bright, promising, accomplished young people who graduate from high school every year, the pride of parents and of the community.
Loved by classmates. Admired by teachers. On them expectations are piled high. They belonged to everyone.
So the whole community, family and friends, felt what the parents of Max Gillis felt when the letter arrived that summer day in 1944:
“To Mr. And Mrs. J. F. Gillis
Grove Hill, Alabama
I am writing you concerning your son, the late First Lieutenant Max Gillis. Lieutenant Gillis was killed instantly in the vicinity of Cherbourg, France, on 24 June, 1944, when struck by shrapnel in the chest and leg. His remains were reverently and properly interred in Grave 95, Row F, Plot Joyhawk Cemetery No. 2, St. Mere Eglise, France. Permit me to express my heartfelt sympathy in the death of your son.”
-Brigadier General Robert H. Dunlop
Max Gillis was one of so many that died in that war and in other wars. And like Gillis, they carried with them the hopes and dreams of so many. His sacrifice, their sacrifice, made our country what it is today.
I remember that, and Max Gillis, on Memorial Day.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson, is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.