Arts & Entertainment

Michel Martin Remembers Her One-Of-A-Kind Uncle Ronald

The late Maj. Ronald Keith McQueen

hide captionThe late Maj. Ronald Keith McQueen poses in an undated photo. McQueen died recently and was the uncle of NPR's Tell Me More host Michel Martin.

Family photo

That handsome man in the photograph is my beloved uncle and godfather, Ronald Keith McQueen. That would be Maj. Ronald Keith McQueen, United States Air Force to you—Unc to all of us.  He was laid to rest yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery with military honors that he most certainly deserved.

That's why I wasn't here the last few days; I was helping my Aunt Stanza with all the arrangements. (Thanks to NPR's Jacki Lyden for filling in for me!)

I don't have the space here to tell you everything I would want you to know about why we loved and admired my uncle so much (besides the fact that he was, as you can see for yourself, crazy cute).

My aunt and I had such a hard time winnowing down his obituary for the funeral program that it ran four pages, so we just inserted it in the program as a separate publication. (That was the one time I let my inner editor take the day off.)

Unc was not just a decorated and courageous serviceman and colleague (my uncle was a navigator and the pilot with whom he flew with in Vietnam came all the way from Nebraska to be with us at the services), my Unc was a great human being.

I know it's a cliché but it happens to be true.

The one great thing about funerals is that you find out new things about your loved one (hopefully good things!) and in this case I found out that my uncle and aunt, beginning when they were in the Air Force, adopted a family every year — up to and including last year — for whom they would provide clothing, food and other necessities.

It started when my uncle was stationed in Roswell NM, and he saw a young airman in the checkout line ahead of him at the store, and saw the man taking things out from his basket. He saw that all the things that came out were for adults to eat, and all that remained were items for infants and children. And he understood what was happening, that the man was putting his own needs last to care for his children.

So my uncle stepped forward and said, "Put those items back ... I will take care of those."

And that launched him on a path that continued after he left the service. When he retired he actually became an administrator in New York City’s surplus food program. Go figure. He never forgot Christmas or a birthday — mine, my husband's or my children's — or our wedding anniversary. And, of course, we were not the only ones. I don't know how he did it. (He must have had a spread sheet a mile long.)

He and my aunt were married for 53 years. People say they don't know how they did that, either! But since I know them both, I do.

The main thing I want to remember about him right now — if for no other reason than to comfort myself against how much it hurts to lose him — is that my uncle embodied the kinds of complexities we all know we should accept about people, but for some reason rarely do.

His love of country knew no limit, but he knew that that love took many forms and did not need to be wrapped in a flag to be true. He loved the Air Force with everything he had; he followed all things relating to flying and the Air Force until he left this earth.

But he was never blind to the imperfections of the institutions he loved and served.  He was proud of his service in Korea and Vietnam but was completely truthful and honest about everything we now know about those conflicts.

He loved his wife fiercely and respected women and their abilities greatly. Once, when I was a child and expressed interest in flying, he gave me a model of one of the aircraft he flew. (He never ever mentioned that, at that time anyway, women were not allowed to fly them.) He had strong views about what men should do and be as leaders of family, community and the nation. He was the most fun uncle, ever. Kids literally would ring the doorbell and ask my aunt if he could come out and play. But he was the most strong and disciplined person I have ever known.

He took responsibility for his own lapses and expected others to do the same, but did not see it as his job to judge others.

I know there are many people like him out there. The question I have is: where are they?

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