Paul Grassey has plenty of stories from his days as a military pilot, including the 13 combat missions he flew with the 8th Air Force in World War II.
He shared a few tales as he spoke to Effingham County High School’s Air Force JROTC, but he focused mainly on principles the students can apply to live their own success stories.
“I don’t care who you are,” Grassey said, “if you’ve got the desire, if you really believe in yourself, you can make it all the way — whatever that is.”
Grassey, 91, was the guest speaker for the ECHS Air Force JROTC’s dining-out, an annual ceremony promoting fellowship and military tradition. Guests are invited, which differentiates it from a military-only dining-in.
He outlined his six pillars of character — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. He particularly emphasized respect because “it’s so easy to do, so easy to give and so easy to get.”
Following his service in the Army Air Force, Grassey enjoyed a successful career in business. He told the students they have “a terrific opportunity for success.”
“The only thing different from you and anybody else is what’s in your heart,” he said.
Grassey also urged the students to pursue post-secondary education. He pointed to the GI Bill as one method to do that.
“If you start thinking college in about the eighth grade, or as hard as you can, you can go to college,” Grassey said. “When you’re really going to love it is 25 years from now when you’re a success.”
To illustrate the importance of education, Grassey referenced his own father. His dad was a gifted textile worker and manager, but was out of work for seven years during the Great Depression.
“The only problem is, he didn’t have any education,” Grassey said. “He never got past sixth grade. All the guys that went to college and studied chemistry, they were taking all these jobs.”
Grassey’s words reinforced the message the cadets routinely receive from ECHS instructors Maj. (ret.) Danny Burgstiner and Master Sgt. (ret.) Donald Smith, that they need to be citizens of character when they finish high school.
“He’s teaching the same thing we’re trying to have our high school kids learn — character counts,” Burgstiner said. “They’re hearing it from somebody different, from a different perspective, and in this case, even a different generation, but a great American and a war hero.”
ECHS senior Tyler Martins, the JROTC corps commander, added: “We’ve had guest speakers over the years, and this is one of the best that we’ve had — because it relates to everything that we do.”
Grassey enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1942 and flew B-24 bombers in Europe. He remains connected to those roots, volunteering at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum and serving on its board of trustees.
Grassey credits former pilot Bill Dolan, whom he calls “one of the greatest intelligence officers of the 8th Air Force,” with influencing his decision to serve his country. Grassey was at Dolan’s house one day in 1942 as he and a group of friends, including Dolan’s twin sons, contemplates enlisting in the military.
“He said, ‘I’m leaving Tuesday. You guys can make up your own minds,’” Grassey recalled. “That’s the way it was then. We were at war.”