|James Whitney Spires, 78, passed away on February 17, 2012 from Parkinson's disease, at his home in Lincolnshire, Illinois, in the loving presence of family members and caregivers.
The only child of Whitt and Lillian Spires, James was born in Augusta, Arkansas in 1933. He became a decorated career Army officer and later started his own business. He read and traveled widely, and instilled in his children his love of knowledge and curiosity about the world. He will be deeply missed by his family and friends, all of whom admired his keen intellect, quick wit, genial demeanor and kindness.
He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he was recognized as a champion debater. Upon graduation in 1956, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, joined the Infantry, trained as a Paratrooper and a Ranger, then received his first overseas posting to occupied Berlin, at a time when that divided city was a flashpoint of tension in the Cold War. While stationed in West Germany, Spires served a memorable term as an exchange officer with the fabled Irish infantry regiment of the British Army, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and was later part of the American contingent that guarded convicted, high-ranking German war criminals at Spandau Prison.
He returned to the United States in 1959, and was assigned to the elite section of the Third Infantry Division known as The Old Guard, based just outside the Capital at Fort Myer in northern Virginia. The Old Guard performs many types of ceremonial duties, but is best known as the unit that conducts military burials at Arlington National Cemetery and maintains the constant, measured, ritual guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
In 1960, Spires, now promoted to Captain, was also selected to be a White House Social Aide. During the final year of the Eisenhower administration, and most notably during the early, trend-setting years of the Kennedy presidency, Spires mingled with journalists, diplomats, artists, premiers and royalty at the elaborate state dinners held in the White House. Because of his strong voice and facility with foreign languages, he became the Social Aide whose job was to announce the arrival of the special guests at these events — everyone from the Shah of Iran to European prime ministers to Mr. Mba (Minister of Posts and Telegraphs) and Mr. Mbu (Director of the Plan) from the Republic of Cameroon.
He married educational consultant Jeanette Elizabeth Berry in 1962, and they began a half-century long partnership full of wonderful adventures. Their first real home was in New Delhi, where James served as an aide to the General heading up an American military mission which built roads and provided advice on mountain warfare techniques to the Indian army in the contested region near the Chinese border. Their first child, Scott, was born in New Delhi in 1964. James remained fascinated by the subcontinent long after his departure, and returned for a last visit near the end of his life.
The family returned to the United States in 1965 and spent some time in California, where Spires studied Vietnamese at the Army's Foreign Language Center. By the time his daughter, Ann, was born in October, he had already been deployed to the war
zone in Vietnam as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Army, serving with the historic 7th Cavalry Regiment. Just three weeks later, he was fighting in the battle of Ia Drang Valley — the first direct confrontation between American ground troops and the North Vietnamese Army, which marked a turning point in the escalation of the war, and took a terrible toll of dead and wounded on both sides. At one crucial moment during the battle, he went out alone at night to a small clearing under hostile fire, and equipped only with a flashlight, guided in several helicopters so that wounded soldiers could be evacuated. For this and other actions in Vietnam, he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and the Legion of Merit. He often said that he regarded every day he lived following that battle as a gift.
Three years in Buenos Aires as a lecturer and advisor to the Argentine military, a second tour in Vietnam, and assignments at several Army bases in the United States rounded out a life of service to his country. Spires retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1976. The family then moved to the suburbs of Chicago, where his daughter, Laura, was born. He studied economics at the University of Chicago and eventually formed his own company, Whitney International, working as a business consultant and manufacturer's representative until 2004, when his Parkinson's disease prompted his retirement.
James Spires loved words in general and languages in particular. He read extensively on many subjects, and his range of knowledge seemed to be nearly universal. Jeanette often said that he was her walking dictionary. He attended the University of Iowa's Writing Workshops during one summer vacation, and continued to compose short stories until he could no longer write. He enjoyed classic American literature, especially the works of Mark Twain. He loved animals and made a family rule: “Never disappoint the dog.” The other important family rule was, "There is always money for books." He had a knack for turning meal times into informal seminars on politics, economics or history, and gave his children reading assignments well into their adulthood. He enjoyed boats and sailing, and for a time owned a racing sailboat with a group of friends. He also loved traveling with Jeanette in his own country and to fascinating locales around the world, where he could immerse himself in other languages and cultures — invariably returning with insights and stories that greatly entertained his children, relatives and friends. He was a member of Faith Lutheran Church of Lake Forest.
James Whitney Spires is survived by his wife Jeanette Elizabeth; daughter Dr. Ann Bradley Spires and her husband Gary Covino of Haverhill, Massachusetts; son Scott Whitney Spires and his wife Olga Uspenskaya and her son, Victor Kononenko of Moscow, Russia; daughter Laura Elizabeth (Spires) Freeburn and her husband Ryan Freeburn of Barry's Bay, Ontario, Canada; and his three granddaughters, Clare, Cecilia, and Jane Freeburn.
Arrangements: Relatives and friends are respectfully invited to attend a memorial service in the Lake Forest area on a date to be announced. Burial will then follow at Arlington National Cemetery, also on a date to be announced. Memorial donations may be made to support the operations of the Kithasyu Community Library, which was founded by Ann Spires in a small village in rural Kenya. Donation checks should be made out to Ann Spires with "Kithasyu Library" on the memo line.