Memorial Day Reflections: COL Charles Quist

Commentary by retired Col . Terry QuistCommentary by retired Col . Terry Quist

Remembering Dad – A son’s memoirs of his father, a World War II and Texas Air National Guard veteran

My Dad passed away peacefully on the evening of April 20, 2015.

Dad was 93 years old and almost within three months of reaching his 94th birthday.  He was born in 1921 in Austin, Texas, to the son of a Swedish immigrant and his Scottish-Irish wife.  Dad fibbed about his age to join the Texas National Guard at the age of 15 in 1937 and was mobilized for World War II.  In 1942, he went to pilot training and flew a wide range of aircraft in the Europe, Asia-Pacific and Africa theaters of operations.  His adoring younger sister, Mary, gained a college degree from the University of Texas in two and a half years and followed him into flight training, serving as one of 1200 Women Air force Service Pilots flying military aircraft during World War II.

After the War, Dad continued in the Texas National Guard.  He and his sister Mary operated an airport and flight school for a few years in south Austin near the present site of St. Edwards University.  Aunt Mary married one of her students, Dad and his other partner eventually closed the business, and Dad became a full-time officer in the new Texas Air National Guard.  He met my mother, while she was working as a secretary at Camp Mabry, in Austin and married her. He moved his new family to San Antonio; this family included my older half-brother, Rick Dillard, whom he raised as his own son.  I was born to Mother and Dad in 1955.

Dad rose through the ranks, earning increasing levels of responsibility, until he became the Commander of the 149th “Lone Star Gunfighter” Tactical Fighter Group of the Texas Air National Guard (now the 149th Fighter Wing). He served as Commander for over eleven years from 1965 until his retirement in 1976.  During his command, his unit achieved a stellar record that included the distinction of being the first Air Force unit to earn an “Outstanding” rating four years in a row.  At the end of his career, he had documented flying 68 different military aircraft during his 6000 flight hours, which might have been an Air Force record in his final years for a living veteran pilot (a general called him several months ago saying Dad was the only pilot he could find who flew more aircraft).

Everyone always said Dad could have been a general officer, but that was not the most important thing for him, and he wasn’t groomed in the fashion of most post-War “modern major generals.”  He never went to civilian college, I know that he was uncomfortable undertaking the “book learning” of correspondence Air War College, and my Mother did not want to move the family to Austin. 

Having said this, during his eleven years of command he built the 149th to such a level of excellence and renown that it became a cradle for generals, growing and attracting future leaders of the Air Force.  Dad personally recruited a young lieutenant, Daniel James, the son of Tuskegee Airman Gen. Chappie James, into the 149th; retired Lt. Gen. Daniel James later became Gov. Bush’s Adjutant General and President Bush’s Director of the Air National Guard.  Maj. Gen. Hank Morrow became commander of First Air Force, responsible for homeland defense and support to civil authorities in disasters.  The current Vice Chief National Guard Bureau, and former U.S. Military Attaché to Egypt, Lt. Gen. Joseph Lengyel, is a former commander of what is now the 149th Fighter Wing.  The current Adjutant General of the Texas National Guard, Maj. Gen. John Nichols, commanded the 149th Fighter Wing, 2002-2009.

Dad spent a quiet retirement in the home to which he had moved the family in 1961 in a new development on old Maverick Sunshine Ranch territory in the Jefferson High School district. He tried real estate for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it, and his mortgage was paid, so he mostly played golf and enjoyed relaxing at his home.  He went to numerous unit reunions over the years.  Over the later years, the old colleagues became fewer and fewer, as well as the regular golf buddies.  He lost my mother due to her ill health and a precipitating fall and rib fracture in 1995.  He was driving himself around avidly until about six years ago.  As his health became frailer he insisted on continuing to live in his home with the support of my brother Rick, who lived close enough to manage his affairs, and a succession of loving and devoted caregivers.

My mother, Rick and I were all talkers.  You couldn’t shut us up.  Dad was quiet.  He almost never expressed extreme emotion, and the worst curse I remember him making when he was really frustrated was “Aww, nuts!”  It was harder to get to know Dad because he wouldn’t talk about himself, but he was always there for us, supporting us unstintingly in everything we wanted to do without judging us or attempting to micromanage or steer our lives.  If my mother complained, he just did what she wanted to keep the family peace.  On occasion we did get glimpses into his thought and his emotion and his personal history when he would unexpectedly pop out a war story, or a tale about his learning golf as a caddy in Austin, or (in his later years) a humorous exchange with one of his doctors.

Dad was not “literary,” but he read news and journals voraciously.  For some reason, perhaps due to his service in the Arctic during World War II, he became attached to the work of a Canadian poet named Robert Service, a sort of Jack London character who wrote grim and romantic ballads about the harsh life of the Far North.  On his last day, I began reading poems by Robert Service to Dad, and I believe by his expression and movement to the sound that he was listening.  Monday evening, I read one last poem and said, “That’s your last poem for the night, Dad!  I’m going to go eat, and I will be back in the morning.”  As I was going to my car, the caregiver called me back.  He had ceased breathing.

Dad was sadly predeceased by his younger sister and women’s aviation pioneer, Mary (Quist) Edwards.  My brother Rick is President of American Classic Music Tours and Festivals in San Antonio.  Besides Rick and me, Dad is survived by:  Rick’s wife, Jo Scurlock-Dillard, a former Reagan High School Choir Director and former President of the Texas Music Educators Association; my wife, Maria Meylikhova, a systems developer at Partners HealthCare in Boston; Rick’s son Kris, a personal counselor in Los Angeles; my son Mark, a University of Texas at Austin Plan two graduate and George Mason Law School graduate who has begun practicing law in Fairfax, Virginia; and my daughter Rachel, a University of Texas at Austin Plan two and Fine Arts graduating senior who will undertake graduate study in Art History next year at the University of Kansas.

I choose to believe that Dad’s spirit hovers over us and blesses our family and his Texas Air National Guard family. My Dad certainly lives on in the hundreds of lives he has touched through his many decades of love, devotion and service.

Col. Terry Quist retired from uniformed service in March 2015 after 30 years in the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania National Guards.  He is currently a civilian intelligence officer in the Joint Intelligence Directorate of the National Guard Bureau and lives in Arlington, Virginia, and Brookline, Massachusetts.