Remembering an American Hero on Veterans Day

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MARY AND BENNIE ADKINS

By ANN CIPPERLY

Since Veterans Day officially became a holiday in 1954, Nov. 11 has been a day to honor our servicemen and women. While Lee County has many heroes who are serving and have served our country, one of our most honored has been Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins, who received the Medal of Honor. The hero’s daughter, Mary Ann Adkins Blake, looks back at her father’s life and how he influenced her, as well as sharing family memories with their favorite recipes over the years.

Bennie received the military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, as an upgrade from his 1967 Distinguished Service Cross on Sept. 15, 2014, from President Barack Obama. Bennie received the honor for “acts of gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty during combat operations against an armed enemy at Camp A Shau, Republic of Vietnam from March 9 to 12, 1966.”

While Mary Ann’s father grew up in Waurika, Oklahoma, her mother, Mary Nell Arington, lived in Opelika. Her parents met when her father was in the infantry at Ft. Benning. A friend of her mother, who was dating a soldier from Ft. Benning, introduced them. At first, her mom was not that interested in meeting him but decided that she would. Mary Ann remembers her mother saying he was a gentleman and the most polite man she had ever met.

They began dating and were married five months later. After marrying, the couple moved to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He served in Special Forces for the military for 22 years, retiring in 1978 while serving in the Panama Canal Zone.

When he retired, the family moved to Opelika. Mary and Bennie had five children, Michael Adkins, Dr. Keith Adkins, Mary Ann Adkins Blake, Dennis Adkins, who is deceased, and Wayne Adkins, who is also deceased.

Mary Ann and her husband, David Blake, are both retired. After Mary Ann graduated from Auburn University, she lived in Atlanta for 16 years where she worked in the financial field. When she moved back to Opelika, she worked as a bookkeeper and ended her career as an administrative assistant at Opelika Power Services.

Mary Ann was entering the fourth grade when her father retired from the military, and they moved to Opelika. She remembers that her father gave her encouragement throughout her life.

“We had rules to follow in our household,” she said. “He was such an encourager. There was never anything that we could not accomplish in our life. He would say, ‘If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.’”

When she was growing up, Mary Ann never heard her father say much about his military career. She remembers when one of his friends who served with him came to visit, that they reminisced with stories of their time in the military.

Since her father owned an accounting business, Mary Ann thought she needed to follow in her father’s footsteps and work there. While attending Auburn, she realized that the work was not for her. Her father supported her when she changed her major to finance, encouraging Mary Ann to do what was best for herself.

Michael Adkins, who lives in Opelika, is retired from Uniroyal. His best memories of his father are when they plowed the land and planted a garden at the family home place. They also cut a trail for horses, built fences and a covered bridge over a creek. They enjoyed riding horses together.

Their father had grown up on a farm in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, and the family was very poor. When Bennie’s parents got married, the only thing his mother could cook was pinto beans and a chocolate cake. Those two dishes, along with chili, remained family favorites for Bennie and his six siblings.

When the Adkins family got together, they all helped cook the beans and chili, while his mother made the chocolate cake. The dishes are also some of Mary Ann’s favorites.

At Thanksgiving, the family usually went to the “ole’ family place” in Opelika where large meals were served and included extended family. On Christmas Eve the Adkins hosted everyone and served heavy hors d’oeuvres.

Mary Ann’s mother enjoyed making salads. The family favorite was her egg salad that is simply made by grating the eggs instead of chopping them. When they had a family gathering, her mother would serve English Pea Salad. Chicken and rice was another favorite. Family get-togethers were held about once a month.

When Mary Ann and her siblings first learned their father was being considered for the Medal of Honor, they were surprised.

“It was a shock,” said Mary Ann, who did not know about her father’s brave actions. “… After the announcement by the White House that he was going to receive the Medal of Honor. I heard the full story for the first time in an interview at Ft. Benning. I didn’t know what happened in Vietnam. Helping him later read through the materials for his book, ‘A Tiger Among Us,’ helped me know the story.”

For the ceremony at the White House, they allowed Adkins to invite 90 people, which is more than usual. Those attending included all of his children and their spouses, family from Oklahoma and about 20 people from Opelika, including Sheriff Jay Jones and his wife and members of the city council. Four men who served with the honoree attended the ceremony.

For Mary Ann, the ceremony was emotional.

“One of the most emotional parts was seeing the emotion on my father’s face and that it was difficult for him to keep his composure,” she said. “When the medal was wrapped around his neck, it was the emotion on his face and my mother’s eyes that I will never forget. The sound of so many cameras taking photos was not like anything that I had ever heard before.”

The Adkins family spent a week in Washington going to meetings, interviews and parties. The sergeant major of the Army hosted a party in Washington, and there were many other parties and receptions to attend in Washington before and after the Medal of Honor ceremony.

“His life changed after that,” Mary Ann said. “He started his fourth career at age 80 by teaching patriotism every time he wore the Medal of Honor. He said if he could change one person’s life by teaching them patriotism, then he did his job. He wore the medal with pride and dignity.”

Mary Ann traveled with her parents to New York City, Washington, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Florida, Texas and other places. He was honored at numerous events. One of his favorite places to visit was Gainesville, Texas, as he wore his cowboy hat and ate brisket. His family in Oklahoma were only about two hours away and would visit, attend parades and play dominoes.

“It changed my life, too,” Mary Ann said. “It really opened my eyes to the military. It changed my life when I traveled with my parents and saw the emotions of the servicemen and women. They have given for their country not just their time but their life, some of their limbs and health, so we have our freedom every day.

“We take that freedom for granted, but they don’t. That changed my life because now I don’t take that freedom for granted anymore.”

Mary Nell Adkins passed away in February 2019, and Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins died on April 17, 2020, from complications from COVID-19 at 86 years of age. They are both buried at Arlington National Ceremony.

Pinto Beans

Mary Ann Adkins Blake

This is how I remember my dad cooking them.

1 lb. bag dried pinto beans

1 white onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped, optional

Ham bone or ham

2 fresh jalapenos, de-seeded and diced

Salt to taste

2 cups water (may need more as beans cook, just use your judgement)

2 cups ham/chicken/beef or vegetable broth, optional

Pick out any bad beans and soak overnight in water. The next day, drain the dried beans and all the other ingredients and combine well in a stockpot. Add water and broth until beans are fully covered.

Bring beans to boil over high heat for approximately 15 minutes, and then reduce heat to simmer until beans are tender, adding water as needed. Cook time may take 2 to 3 hours. Serve with cornbread.

Chili

Mary Ann Adkins Blake

Dad would cook larger portions of chili for his annual chili cooks. He would cook chili in an old iron pot over an open fire.

2 lbs. ground beef

1 pkg. original chili seasoning

1 pkg. hot chili seasoning

1 can petite diced tomatoes

1 can tomato sauce

1 (15 oz.) can red kidney beans

1 onion, chopped         

Brown ground beef in a skillet and drain. Mix cooked ground beef and remaining ingredients in a stockpot and cook on low.

Egg Salad

Mary Nell Adkins

“Everyone loved my mother’s egg salad sandwiches,” Mary Ann said. “She made them for showers and any family function. Now, my brother, Keith Adkins, is carrying on this tradition and makes egg salad as delicious as our mother.”

Boiled eggs

Hellman’s mayonnaise

Salt and pepper to taste

Grate eggs, mix in mayonnaise, salt and pepper to taste.

English Pea Salad

Mary Nell Adkins

This was a favorite for family gatherings. Keith Adkins is carrying on this tradition a makes wonderful English Pea Salad.

15 oz. can Le Sueur peas, drained

¼ cup chopped onion

2-3 Tbsp. mayonnaise

2 boiled eggs, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and refrigerate.

Vidalia Onion Dip

Dr. Keith Adkins

Dad enjoyed anything made with onions.

2 ½ cups coarsely chopped Vidalia onions

2 cups Hellman’s Mayonnaise

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine ingredients and place in a shallow baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until top is beginning to become golden brown. Serve piping hot with Ritz or Club crackers.

Cheese Logs

Mary Nell Adkins

“One of our family favorites from the 1970’s when we lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina,” Mary Ann said, “when my dad was in Special Forces.”

8 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

8 oz. pepper jack cheese, shredded

8 oz. Colby jack cheese, shredded

2 Tbsp. onion powder   

1 Tbsp. garlic powder

Pecans, chopped, optional

Mixture of chili powder and paprika to taste

Let cheese get to room temperature. Mix everything together, except chili powder and paprika mixture, on wax paper.

Shape mixture into equal sizes. Makes approximately 5 logs. Roll logs in chili powder/paprika mixture. Wrap each log in wax paper and then aluminum foil. Chill in refrigerator. Slice and serve with crackers.

Empanadas

Mary Nell Adkins

“This was a favorite from our days while living in the Panama Canal Zone,” Mary Ann said. “My dad was the Command Sergeant Major and led training at Ft. Sherman’s Jungle School.”

Dough:

2 cups flour

1 stick butter   

2 Tbsp. oil

¼ cup water

1 tsp. salt       

Cut butter into flour with pastry blender. Add oil, salt and water (mixed together) a little at a time. Knead dough a little and roll out on floured surface with floured rolling pin.

Cut with biscuit cutter and place a small amount of meat in the middle. Fold one side over and seal edges with a fork. Put on ungreased baking sheet and bake at 375 for 15 minutes. Makes 20-30 small ones.

Filling:

Approximately ½ lb. ground beef

½ onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

Season to taste with chili powder, tobacco sauce, salt and pepper. Fry beef until brown, with onion and garlic. Season with salt, chili powder, etc. Tomato sauce may be added to make mixture moister, if desired. Meat should not be too runny.

Cornbread

Mary Ann Adkins Blake

2 cups self-rising corn meal

¼ cup oil

1 1/3 cups milk or buttermilk

1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 450. Pour oil in iron skillet and put into oven while preheating. Mix cornmeal, milk and egg together. Take skillet out and pour mixed batter into skillet. Bake until golden brown.

Ham Roll Ups

Mary Nell Adkins

This is one of our Christmas Eve traditional favorites.

1 pkg. long ham sandwich meat

8 oz. cream cheese, softened

1 bunch green onions

Spread cream cheese on ham slices. Lay one green onion on the ham crossways. Roll it up. Place in the refrigerator to chill. Slice into small pinwheels. Serve with crackers.

Chocolate Icing for Cake

Mary Nell Adkins

“This was always a favorite of my dad’s,” Mary Ann said. “My mother would split her cake layers and ice between each layer and then ice the entire cake.”

2 cups sugar   

½ cup cocoa   

1 stick butter   

1 cup milk

2 whole eggs

Mix all dry ingredients. Add butter and milk. Beat eggs and add to mixture. Let it come to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Enough to frost two cake layers.

Coconut Sheet Cake

Mary Nell Adkins

This was a family favorite at Easter. Mother would decorate with miniature chocolate eggs and make a nest with coconut mixed with green food coloring.

Bake a white or yellow cake mix following directions on the box. When cake is baked, poke holes in cake with a fork. Spread a can of Eagle brand milk over the top. Cover with Cool Whip and then put coconut on top.

Butter Pecan Cookies

Mary Nell Adkins and Dr. Keith Adkins

“This was a Christmas Eve tradition for my mother to make these cookies,” Mary Ann said. “Now, my brother, Keith, has continued the tradition.”

1 cup butter, room temperature

¾ cup packed brown sugar        

¾ cup white sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

1 cup chopped pecans

Cream butter and sugar; add eggs and vanilla. Combine flour, soda and salt; add to mixture. Stir in pecans.

Drop on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes.

Oven Baked Chicken and Rice

Mary Nell Adkins made this recipe often for Sunday dinners.

Oil for pan

Chicken, cut up pieces, or chicken wings

Salt and pepper to taste

Flour to coat chicken

Pat of butter   

Rice:

2 cups water

2 cups instant white rice

1 can cream of chicken soup

1 can crem of celery soup

1 can cream of mushroom soup

Salt and pepper to taste

1 stick butter, sliced into pats

Oil pan. Season chicken with salt and pepper; coat chicken with flour. Put chicken in oiled pan and pat with butter on top. Bake at 350 degrees until chicken starts to brown.

Remove chicken from oven and take out of pan.

Combine rice ingredients in pan; place chicken on top. Continue baking until chicken and rice are cooked.

January Thaw

Idell Adkins, Bennie G. Adkins’ mother

“Our Grandma Adkins would always make Christmas cakes and candy,” said Mary Ann. “When we visited them in Oklahoma, we would always bring home a candy tin full of goodies.”

2 cups sugar   

1 cup milk

½ cup white Karo syrup

1 tsp. soda

1 tsp. vanilla   

1 cup pecans   

1 Tbsp. butter

Combine sugar, milk and syrup in a big pot and cook over low heat until boiling, stirring while it heats. Add soda. When it is gold brown, test until firm ball, almost a hard ball. Don’t overcook.

Remove from heat and add remaining ingredients and beat until good and firm. Pour into a greased pan. Cut into slices when cool.

Boiled Cookies

Mary Nell Adkins

These cookies are a family favorite that were made often.

1 stick butter   

2 cups sugar   

4 Tbsp. cocoa

½ cup milk

1 tsp. vanilla   

2 ½ cup quick oats

½ cup peanut butter, optional

In a saucepan, melt butter. Add sugar, cocoa and milk. Bring to a boil and cook one minute. Remove from heat and stir in oats and peanut butter. Drop by spoonsful onto wax paper. Let cool until slightly firm.

Mississippi Mud Cake

Idell Adkins, Bennie G. Adkins’ mother

Cake:

2 sticks butter 

2 cups sugar

2 Tbsp. cocoa

4 eggs

1 ½ cups flour

1 tsp. vanilla

1 1/3 cups coconut

1 cup pecans

Topping:

1 jar marshmallow cream

Cream butter and sugar together. Add cocoa and eggs, beating after each addition. Add rest of cake ingredients. Bake on 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes in greased and floured 9 by 13 inch pan. When done, spread marshmallow cream over hot cake. Let cool completely. Then cover cake with icing.

Icing:

1 stick butter, melted

1 box powdered sugar

1/3 cup cocoa

½ cup canned evaporated milk    1 tsp. vanilla      

Mix and spread over cooled cake.

Oven Fried Chicken or Pork Steaks

Mary Nell Adkins

Oven fried pork steaks were one of my dad’s favorites.

Oil

1 fryer chicken, cut up, or pork steaks

Flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Butter

Oil pan. Season chicken or pork steaks. Coat chicken or pork steaks with flour. Put in oiled pan and pat butter on top.

Bake at 350 degrees until meat starts to brown. Flip with spatula after the bottom is crispy, turning once. Bake until fully cooked.

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