The extraordinary lives of ordinary men

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 3, 2004

On Saturday, February 21, 2004, my father, Malcolm J. Forbes, Sr. was taking the last breaths of a rather remarkable life.

For years, his vision had been limited by Maccula Degeneration of the Retina and his speech and movements restricted by the relentless progression of the Parkinson’s Disease that had attacked his body.

Yet it was the emphysema that had for months forced him to fight for enough oxygen to sustain his life that was now bringing it to an end.

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As my family and I lovingly gathered around his bed, the monitors attached to his body quietly announced that his heart was beating ever more slowly and his respiration rates dropping each minute.

It was like a slow-motion movie scene when time seemed to stand still, and if his life was not passing in front of him as some say happens just before death, it certainly was passing by me.

Each frame seemed more vivid than the one before and the memories of a lifetime washed over me.

Everyone in that room realized without speaking that before them was a man who refused to quit no matter what the odds and was surviving only on his two greatest resources:

the sheer strength of his will and the greatness of his heart.

Some men invest their lives in building a strong retirement account or buildings with their name on it.

Some focus on amassing great power or fame.

My dad invested his life in people.

As the memories of his life flooded me in those last few seconds, I realized that the success or failure of his life would be measured in the lives of those many individuals.

Dad was born on September 1, 1924 and lived in Chesapeake all his life.

He loved his community and he watched it grow from a small little community to the third largest city in Virginia.

During all that time he never forgot what was important in life: people.

As a young boy he lived on a farm his father owned on Johnstown Road.

As times got tougher after the depression, his father rented the homeplace and moved to the Great Bridge Locks where he served as the locktender.

He would keep that job until he died even though his family moved back to Johnstown Road.

As a teenager, Dad worked in the only grocery store in Great Bridge, which was located by the Great Bridge Bridge and was called the Great Bridge Market.

In December 1943, Dad entered the Army and soon went to basic training.

On his first furlough he married his high-school sweetheart, Thelma, in May 1944.

They would have been married sixty years this May.

Three days after the marriage he left for combat in Europe.

While guarding prisoners in Normandy he made a vow to God that if he could ever get home he would have his family in church every Sunday.

On Mother’s Day in 1946, he came home and never forgot his vow.

Every Sunday, no matter where we were at the time, we had to be in church on Sunday.

He loved Great Bridge Baptist Church and was a charter member.

He began there when the church met in a small house and the men had Sunday School in the church bus outside.

He laid the cornerstone of the first sanctuary and attended faithfully every Sunday.

I never knew a time when someone asked my father to have a cup of coffee or sit down and talk that he refused them.

It did not matter whether you mowed the lawn or sat as President of the United States, he always had time for you.

Numerous dignitaries in Chesapeake will tell you that the first person they met when they came to Chesapeake was my dad, and they will tell you how he personally took them around to meet the people who lived in the community.

He paid insurance for those who could not afford it, and fixed their problems or held their hand when they needed a friend.

It was never his words but always his actions that taught us the importance of giving back to others and never giving up.

My father had some of the best friends a man could ever have, and he had a family who loved and respected him.

When I first ran for office in 1989 scores of people came from small farms and modest homes and told me at the polls that they came to vote for Malcolm’s son.

The encouragement of this man who never had the opportunity to obtain a college education resulted in two children graduating the same year as valedictorians of their high school and college respectively.

His son became the first Congressman ever elected from Chesapeake.

His daughter became the first state treasurer from Chesapeake.

His oldest son retired after a career in civil service

It is the lives of people like my father that are the backbone of our nation.

All across the Fourth District there are people who devote their lives to their family, their faith, their community, and their country.

Last week as my father passed, I could not help being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the accomplishments of people like my father.

In today’s world, what a truly remarkable task it is to raise loving and adjusted children, to have a faithful devotion to your occupation, and to serve and protect our nation as a member of the Armed Services.

What a great accomplishment it is to live every day with a spirit of humility and generosity.

How easy it is to forget that it is not the accomplishments of a few powerful or famous men that have made this nation great, but the collective spirit of ordinary hardworking Americans.

It is the spirit of these ordinary people that is extraordinary.

It is them whom we should celebrate.

J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s 4th District in the House of Representatives.