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In the years since I served as his aide-de-camp, all my phone conversations with retired Brigadier General Spessard Boatright have begun the same way: “Jim, this is your friend, Spessard. How are you?” Of course, he’ll always be General Boatright to me, but that alone should tell you that he is a humble man from a humble background who rose to the loftiest heights of military and public service.
General Boatright did future generations a great favor by penning his autobiography, The Unknown Journey, to leave a permanent record for those who follow. It’s a great read for a number of reasons, not least of which is the description of his upbringing as the youngest of 13 children, reared on a tobacco farm in rural Suwannee County. His family lived off what their land could provide and little else. It was a life of hard work that prepared him well for his dual civilian and military careers.
As I read his book, I remembered many of the stories as ones he told me during my time as his aide and later as the brigade public affairs officer. This was a man who never missed a day of school in 12 years, who graduated from OCS and had to wait a month to be old enough to receive his commission, who was elected district school superintendent at the age of 28, who commanded an Army medical group during Operation Desert Storm and who retired as a one-star general after more than 39 years of service.
A recurring theme throughout the book – and throughout General Boatright’s life – is the importance of doing what’s right without fail. People give a lot of lip service to that notion, but if you want to see what that means in practice, read about him taking on issues like school integration, budget crises and teacher strikes before he reached his 30th birthday. What amazed me is the degree of confidence with which he approached all of those thorny problems, a confidence born of knowing that he was doing the right thing for the right reasons. The challenges and the consequences might have been tough, but he rarely if ever had to second-guess himself.
I was fortunate to spend a year at his side and witness his leadership skills firsthand. He was soft-spoken, quick-witted and always upbeat no matter what circumstances he faced. No one in his command questioned his resolve or his iron-clad commitment to integrity. He gave all of us room to make mistakes and grow, but he had no tolerance for ambivalence or dishonesty. He simply expected us to follow his example and do the right thing all the time.
In the book, General Boatright explains that in order to manage a large family and farm, everyone had to work together and work until the work was done. They had to trust one another without question and recognize that each had an essential role in keeping things running smoothly.
Readers are able to see how that upbringing prepared General Boatright for a life of successful leadership in the military and in the field of education. More importantly, his life’s story will renew your faith that it’s still possible for moral, ethical people to rise to the top of their fields with hard work and dedication – and without compromising their values along the way.
The Unknown Journey is available online at Amazon.com.