‘A life truly well lived’

Published 5:23 pm Saturday, February 27, 2016

Volumes have been written and a myriad of documentaries have chronicled the heroism and American story of Suffolk native Col. Fred Vann Cherry during his seven and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, where he demonstrated strong personal fortitude and maximum persistence in the face of severe enemy torture.

History well documents his determination to earn his place in a society that did not appreciate African-American officers.

“I was so inspired by Fred’s toughness,” Commander Porter Halyburton, who shared a cell with Cherry as a POW, has said.

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“He had grown up in the racial South [and] undergone a lot of discrimination and hardship. But he was such an ardent patriot. He loved this country. It inspired me, and it inspired a lot of others.”

Col. Cherry’s valor, love of country and humanity were evident from the moment he took to the skies in his F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber and throughout his 87 years, as he helped others achieve excellence.

He was not just a warrior in the skies, but in corporate America and his community as well.

I had the distinct honor of knowing him for more than 20 years. He was my business mentor in the defense industry as I was launching a government contracting business.

Through his coaching and advice on how to create relationships with larger contractors and “win-win” negotiations, we became friends. Our sessions took place at our favorite Washington social hangouts, after work and among other contractors, many of whom are still mutual friends.

His circle of friends included trusted, respected individuals who took pride in being called “a friend of Fred’s” because of his integrity, strong character and quiet, humble demeanor.

Most of us did not know details of his POW experience, but it was abundantly clear that he lived in a space of “higher self,” peacefulness and love. His humble being never dwelled on the past, but always in the present, looking to the future.

His power of love and peaceful existence best defines Col. Cherry to the rest of the world.

“I was always taught to love and respect others and forgive those who mistreat, scorn or persecute me,” he said in 1999. “[This] allowed me overcome the damages of discrimination, Jim Crow, and the social and economic barriers associated with growing up a poor dirt farmer. My standard for making decisions is based on doing what is right.”

Col. Cherry practiced interconnectedness, feeling close and in touch with the presence of all who came into his life.

Aside from his cleverness, wit and wisdom, he carried a constant warm demeanor, whether with the wait staff in a restaurant or in the halls of power at the Pentagon. He was good, grateful, gregarious and generous.

Following a lunch meeting in August 2015 in Maryland, where we were confirming plans to develop a documentary about his life, Leah Gottlieb stated, “As he described his experiences in Vietnam, and his life before and after the war, I will remember forever his infectious smile. An American hero, beaten and tortured for years and who didn’t know whether or not his country had abandoned him, yet there he was sitting next to me, still able to laugh heartily as he told a story about an old friend. His sincerity and sense of peace came from within … likely because Col. Cherry knew he had done the best he could under the circumstances.”

In honoring Col. Cherry’s life through this tribute, I am truly blessed and grateful to have had him in my life. He will always be a reminder of how to live an honorable life — a life truly well lived through faith, love, patience and perseverance — a hero’s life.

Robert E. “Bob” Stephens lives in Suffolk. Email him at RobertEStephens@aol.com.