With readings and stories from “GI Joe and Lillie,” his best seller about the lives of his parents during a after World War II, his a capella singing of patriotic songs he had written and other thoughts, Joe Bonsall, a member of the Oak Ridge Boys since 1973, entertained and inspired a near capacity crowd at Saturday’s 59th annual Boyd County Old-Timer’s Breakfast at the Ashland Elks Lodge.
While some Democrats in the crowd said they were offended by Bonsall’s brief comments supporting Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan during his 45-minute talk, the crowd was united in cheering Bonsall’s tribute to veterans.
“Do you know what I like about this crowd?” Bonsall asked those attending the breakfast reserved for those who were born in Boyd County 50 or more years ago or those who were born elsewhere but have lived in the county for at least 40 years. “This feels like America.”
Since the publication of “GI Joe and Lillie” and other stories about veterans, Bonsall said he is frequently invited to speak to many veterans’ groups and to other organizations, but because the Oak Ridge Boys continue to perform 150 dates a year, he has to turn most of them down. He was able to speak to Saturday’s breakfast because the Oak Ridge Boys performed in Wheeling, W.Va., Friday night and were to be in Elkins, W.Va., last night.
In his nearly four decades of performing with one of America’s most popular singing groups, Bonsall, 64, said the Oak Ridge Boys have never wanted to be a group that got by just performing their old hits.
“We are still writing and recording new songs and we continue to try to get better and better,” Bonsall said. “We are always looking for new and better ways of doing things,” he said, adding that this year’s Christmas tours will feature many new songs.
“We could all retire and be happy, but none of us are ready to do that,” he said of the group. “So as long as we can still sing, we will keep going forward and doing what we are doing until, well, we die.”
Bonsall first established himself as an author in 1997, when he published “The Molly Books,” a four-part children’s series. His writing career really took off in 2003, when “GI Joe and Lillie” was published. Bonsall said he first wrote about his parents, a World War II soldier and a WAC, who met and married while his father was recuperating from his battle wounds, for the book “Chicken Soup for the Soldier’s Soul.”
“It was rejected,” Bonsall laughed. “They said they really liked the story, but they had more stories than what they needed, so it didn’t make the final cut.”
Bonsall said he took the story to a small publisher, which asked him to expand on it. When he did, they asked him to write even more until he had enough for the book.”
Bonsall said his father suffered a major stroke at 39 that probably was caused when shrapnel still in his body from his war wounds moved. After that, his father lost much of his ability to speak and could only say a few words at a time for the rest of his life. Both of his parents died in a veteran’s home in Philadelphia.
Bonsall said his sister had stories their mother had written about the times she and her young husband had during and after the war. “Without those writings from my mother, I would never have been able to write ‘GI Joe and Lillie’. She was my source and my inspiration.”
When he still was able to talk, Bonsall said his father told him, “Combat war is the most cruel thing there is” and vowed to die fighting before he would ever let his son go to war. Years later, when he was drafted during the Vietnam War, Bonsall said his mother went before the draft board in Philadelphia and testified that his father was a disabled World War II veteran, that she also was a war veteran and that her son was the sole support for the family. The draft board voted to exempt him.
Even though his father was disabled and unable to speak, “he kept this promise, didn’t he?” Bonsall said.
Bonsall said the response to “GI Joe and Lillie” continues to surprise him. He said a woman purchased a copy of the book at a Cracker Barrel in Georgia, and from reading it, she quickly realized that Lillie was her best friend during World War II. The woman sent Bonsall the only pictures he has of his mother during her time as a WAC.
Bonsall said he wanted to write a song about those who have sacrificed with their blood, and he began by thinking about how Jesus had paid the ultimate sacrifice with his blood. “The song didn’t come out talking about Jesus’ sacrifice, but that is what inspired it.”
Instead it is about the many soldiers who have sacrificed with their blood so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have today. “Sacrifice is personal, and because of the suffering, sacrifice and blood shed by many, we owe a great debt of gratitude to our veterans.”
Bonsall’s parents are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
While he clearly endorsed Romney during his speech, Bonsall insisted he was not being political. “I just want to encourage everyone here to vote,” he said. “How you vote is up to you. I realize there are two sides to everything. If you vote different than I do, that is up to you. But vote.”
The breakfast also included awards for the oldest person present, the couple that had been married the longest and the person who had traveled the furthest. Ray Lewis, 102, was the oldest one present, having been so recognized at previous breakfasts.
Dr. Paul Kleykamp also led in the singing of “God Bless America,” a tradition at the annual breakfasts.
P.J. Wonn III was elected president of the group without opposition, and he will follow John Vincent and be in charge of the 60th annual Boyd County Old Timer’s Breakfast on the first Saturday of October in 2013.
JOHN CANNON can be reached at email@example.com or at (606) 326-2649.