Legacy is a difficult topic to discuss, especially if it’s your own.
However, Ray Bradbury had a different notion. To Bradbury the idea of legacy comes from “a child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made.”
“Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”
For John Black, a veteran of the National Guard and Air Force, he says he’s seen people compete at the highest level in their sport, build companies, generate millions of dollars, be decorated pilots. But that never appealed to him.
He never wanted his legacy to be defined by how he responded to a tornado, or served for five years in the United States military, or worked to build a life in Santa Clarita, back when McBean Parkway was only a two-lane road.
“The point is, I don’t know how much money I’ve made in my lifetime, but I’m happy with what I’ve done,” said Black.
John Black was born Feb. 1, 1936, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Richard and Eleanor Black, an Army Corps pilot and homemaker, respectively.
When Black was growing up in the era of the Great Depression and then World World War II, his father was rarely home. By 1941, Richard and Eleanor, despite being strict Catholics, divorced, and Richard was called to fly missions in a fighter plane over the Pacific.
For Black, being the oldest child on a farm in the Midwest meant hard work was put on him. In addition to the tasks of helping run an 80-acre dairy farm from a young age, Black had to strictly abide by the tenets of his religion.
“Church every day,” said Black, adding that in his house there would be no television, no liquor and having Catholic values was a high priority. “If you steal something from someone, you get paid back for it.”
An athlete as a kid, with endurance and strength built from lifting hay bales over his head every day, Black found himself competing in cross country and track and field. But there would always be time for church, he said.
“During the Korean War, I would be pulled out of class to serve mass and be an altar boy at the cemetery (during the funerals for soldiers),” he remembered.
The impact of having a family history of serving in the military, him being present at a number of military funerals, and the draft still being underway in the United States following the Korean War, Black found himself signing up for the National Guard at age 17.
Beginning in 1953, Black began his service as a member of the National Guard, serving in Michigan as a company clerk.
Black said that, for much of the time he was a member of the National Guard, he worked as a typist, something he learned in school.
“It was probably the most useful thing I had learned while in school,” said Black of his typing skills.
However, it was not all time spent in an office, working to ensure letters, orders and other pieces of paper had been typed out. Whether he was working on maneuvers with other members of the National Guard out in the field, or learning how to drive military trucks and convoys.
“You have to be ready to be called up for emergencies. The governor could call you up … you’re under the state. So if they have a national disaster or things like the Watts or Detroit riots, you could get called in.”
During the mid-1950s, the National Guard was being used for a variety of tasks by the federal government, such as responding to natural disasters within the states to provide assistance to those in need, as well as helping the federal government with the policy enforcement.
In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas National Guard in order to ensure the safety and entry of the Little Rock Nine into Little Rock Central High School following a federal mandate for schools to desegregate.
For the Michigan National Guard, Black said he was called into active duty around April 3, 1956, when one of the deadliest days in West Michigan history occurred. A violent tornado, he said, came off of Lake Michigan and tore through local communities.
What eventually became known as the strongest tornado in West Michigan history, according to weather reports of the time, resulted in the death of at least 17 people, with more than 300 being injured.
As a result, Black and his fellow National Guardsmen were called in to not only conduct humanitarian missions on the ground, but to also ensure order in the chaos.
“We had to make sure there weren’t any looters,” said Black. “I had to stand there with an empty gun.”
In total, Black spent just over four years as a member of the National Guard, from 1953 to 1957. Throughout his time in the Guard, he attended college and worked on his family’s farm from time to time.
However, because of the National Guard work, he was unable to complete his finals at Grand Rapids Junior College, resulting in a loss of his deferment. Uncle Sam called on him to make a decision and choose between one of the military branches or risk penalty.
In the end, he chose the Air Force.
Once again the new guy on the block, Black was sent down South to complete basic training, despite having been in the National Guard for four years.
“You learn what a drill instructor is and you learn what your value is,” said Black. “I remember marching all night.”
He said that in order to get through basic, he had to qualify with a rifle, but that was no issue for him.
“When you grow up on a farm, you learn how to handle a rifle,” he said.
After completing his training, Black was working in Colorado, once again as a clerk. Before long, he would be given a medical discharge for headaches he was having.
“They let me out,” he said.
After the Service
Following a total of five years in the armed forces, with a total of one year in the Air Force, Black was finally sent home for good.
After completing his degree at the University of Michigan, he and his family, a wife and three children, moved around a bit as Black worked as a technician with typewriters and cash registers.
Much like his parents though, Black and his first wife would divorce. And seeing the need to still provide for his family, he took up a job in Southern California.
He says he remains very proud of his children who went on to become a doctor, a lawyer and an architect, respectively. After moving to the Santa Clarita Valley in the 1960s, Black continued to live his life after the service, away from the cold Michigan weather.
And in 1991, he met Sharon at a group called “Parents without Partners.” According to John, they would be friends and date for a long while before they would be married in 2000.
For the last decade, the two have volunteered at the SCV senior center, and they’re now daily visitors.
And now looking back on his life, about to undergo treatment for cancer, Black says he’s not regretting the decisions he made in his life.
He says he’s always had a job, he’s always been employed. Helped raise three children and got them through their education. He’s served his country, he’s served in his community, and he’s been the best that he could be.
“That’s my legacy.”