Business owner honored

Published 10:26 pm Monday, November 21, 2011

Mike Pullen, right, commander of the Tom Smith Camp of Sons of Confederate Veterans, presents the 17th annual Marion Joyner Watson award to William Blair on Saturday during the award banquet at Bethlehem Christian Church.

A local business owner was honored by the Tom Smith Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans on Saturday.

William Blair, owner of Blair Brothers, Inc., received the 17th annual Marion Joyner Watson award, given by the local camp in honor of Watson, a charter member of the Suffolk Nansemond Historical Society and researcher who compiled information for booklets for the society to sell.

“This man has done so much for Southern heritage,” said Commander Mike Pullen of the Tom Smith Camp.

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In honoring Blair during the ceremony at Bethlehem Christian Church, the group also lit a candle for Blair’s great-great-grandfather, William Burton Southern of the 23rd Virginia Infantry in the Confederate Army, as well as his wife Sarah’s great-great-uncle, Albert Gallatin Willis of the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry.

But it was Blair’s work with some more recent veterans that stood out during the ceremony.

For years, Blair has picked up the tab for a group of prisoners of war and other veterans who meet regularly for breakfast at Bunny’s Restaurant on Wilroy Road. At first, he did it anonymously, but he was found out and began coming to breakfast with the veterans.

Nell Turner, the wife of Marion “Turk” Turner, a POW who died earlier this year, said she and her husband began coming to the breakfast several years ago but noticed something odd — nobody ever asked them for payment.

“We noticed that at the close of each breakfast, there was no bill,” she said. “Finally, we coerced one of the girls at the counter to tell us the name of our benefactor.”

The group began to send Blair cards of thanks and invitation. He soon began coming and became friends with the POWs, even visiting many of them in the hospital and taking them to events.

In fact, Nell Turner said, he was one of the last people that her husband recognized on his deathbed.

“He was one of the last persons who got any response at all from Turk,” she said. “You have really chosen the right man for this award.”

Blair said he was very honored to be recognized, but deflected praise to the veterans he helped.

“I’ve always admired those who give time out of their lives, or even their very lives, to help preserve our American way of life,” he said during a brief thanks.

The brevity was not out of character for Blair, said Donna House, another regular member of the Bunny’s breakfast group.

Over time, the group has grown to include World War II veterans who were not prisoners of war, as well as veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Ordinary citizens, like House, also come to sit in the company of their heroes.

“He doesn’t like notoriety,” House said, recalling one time when he got more notoriety than he bargained for.

House arranged for a flag to be flown on the USS Bataan in honor of Blair. She also, unbeknownst to Blair, invited television crews and other media, who turned out in force.

“Mr. Blair’s face ended up in Australia,” she said. “People were sending newspaper articles from all over. He’s now world-renowned. He’s a wonderful man.”

Ed Fancher, a Vietnam vet who attends the breakfasts, said Blair welcomed him into the group for the chance to learn from the prisoners of war.

“He just gave his life to these guys,” Fancher said. “Anything that is given to this man is certainly well-deserved.”