I.V. Hillis Jr. was friends with the late Chuck Yeager, legendary test pilot. They served together in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, then kept up the friendship in later years. Hillis called the late Bob Dole “a true patriot” when they and others championed veterans’ efforts.
Hillis, 92, a McMinnville, Tennessee, native, was a staff sergeant, air traffic control operator and technical sergeant in the Air Force reserves. He would spend 35 years as a news, weather and sports broadcaster at WSMT-AM in Sparta, Tennessee, and served in the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1971 to 1995.
For more than 50 years, he has been a veterans’ advocate.
With friends and 40 family members present, Hillis received the Dr. Joe Nunley Sr. Award for service to his country during the 40th annual Salute to Veterans and Armed Forces game Saturday, Nov. 12, on the Middle Tennessee State University campus.
MT Athletics and the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center hosted the game activities.
The MT Blue Raiders defeated the Charlotte 49ers 24-14 in the game that featured special tributes to veterans, active-duty military and their families. Tennessee National Guard static displays and Vet Village also were part of the activities.
“We’ve never had a better recipient than I.V. Hillis,” said close friebd Andy Womack, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a former state senator, past Nunley Award recipient, veterans’ advocate and business owner.
“This is wonderful,” a humble Hillis said after receiving the award from Joe “Trey” Nunley III and accepting it “on behalf of all veterans — those who paid the price.”
Hillis explained how Kelly Crawford and Harold Dunlap, both from McMinnville, died in World War II. Crawford’s boat was sunk by a Japanese submarine; a Japanese sniper killed Dunlap.
Even with his family’s efforts to protect him during the pandemic, Hillis has overcome three bouts of the coronavirus. Oma Lee Fults Hillis, his wife of 69 years, died in March 2020.
The award celebrates the career of Dr. Joe Nunley, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, MTSU alumnus, professor, historian and former MTSU director of alumni affairs.
A new branch with an MTSU songwriting connection
The MTSU Band of Blue once again performed the theme songs for all the military branches — including the new Space Force, whose song, “Semper Supra” — Latin for “Always Above” — was written by veteran Jamie Teachenor, adjunct professor of songwriting in the Department of Recording Industry.
“While serving in the U.S. Air Force, I witnessed firsthand the value of the space domain,” said Teachenor, who marched with the MTSU ROTC cadets carrying the banner and Smyrna squadron Civil Air Patrol members. “The guardians are essential to our global safety, security and American prosperity.
“The Band of Blue sounded incredible, and I was proud to sing along as they performed ‘Semper Supra.’ Even though I am an Air Force veteran, I am humbled and honored to have written the official anthem of the U.S. Space Force and to have represented the Space Force Guardians in the Salute to Veterans and Armed Forces game.”
Tailgating picnic attracts veterans
A free barbecue lunch and tickets to the MT-Charlotte game provided by Window World awaited veterans, active-duty personnel and their families at the tailgating picnic outside the Kennon Hall of Fame.
“This is awesome. What a great event for veterans,” said Daniel Dücker, executive director of the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, with 5,000 employees serving veterans at 19 locations between Chattanooga and Clarksville, including the Alvin C. York VA in Murfreesboro.
Dücker, who has toured the Daniels Center, spoke to those attending the picnic. “We want to make sure we’re meeting your needs. As you serve, we serve you.”
Joining Dücker were Paul Odie, VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System outreach coordinator; Hannah McDuffie, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and other VA workers staffing booths at the Vet Village.
Sporting a jacket full of military patches, James Mayo of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, an Air Force aircraft mechanic who has attended the Salute game “a bunch of times,” explained what being a veteran means to him.
“If you have ever been in the military, you always have something to talk about” with fellow veterans, he said. “You have something in common that civilians can’t relate to.”
Honoring those who served in Afghanistan
This year’s memorial service that launched the festivities honored veterans who served in Afghanistan. Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Keith M. Huber, whose final overseas service tour was in Afghanistan, spoke about his leadership role there. He is senior adviser for veterans and leadership initiatives at MTSU.
“We all left things behind,” said Huber, sharing with the MTSU audience what he often told groups of 200 to 300 soldiers when they first arrived to serve in Afghanistan, “and the reality is you may never see it again. But we did that to come here and serve.”
A video from the ceremony is available above.
MTSU alumnus Don Witherspoon (Class of 1964), a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, suggested that attendees take the time to go outside to the Veterans Memorial wall to read the names of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“Let us express our gratitude to those who served, those who are serving, and their families, who also made sacrifices,” Witherspoon said.
The program also included the posting of the colors by the Rolling Thunder organization; reveille and taps played by Robert Aanerud; the national anthem sung by professor H. Stephen Smith in the School of Music; the poem “Poppies,” read by Department of English Chair Stephen Severn; and the welcome and introduction of Huber by associate professor Robb McDaniel, Veterans Memorial Committee chair and a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)