How many times Major Robert Neal Collins, Sr. (1921- 2007), US Air Force Veteran of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnamese War, flight instructor, lover of flying, read or quoted "High Flight" by John Gillespie McGee, Jr., I know not. But the poem so characterizes Mr. Collins that I reproduce it here in his memory and for our consideration as we observe Memorial Day, 2007.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds--and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of--Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
-John Gillespie McGee, Jr. (1922-1941)
On March 14, 2007, three days shy of his eighty-sixth birthday, R. Neal Collins "slipped the surly bonds of earth." It was not in a plane this time for the flyer, soaring high above the clouds, but God came down, touched the hand of His servant, and said, "Come away with me. This time, I am taking you where you will experience flight and freedom as you've never seen before. He truly "touched the face of God."
When I heard of R. Neal's passing, I thought back to the beginning of World War II. Three men, born the same year, 1921, on the same Collins Road in Choestoe, joined the U. S. Army Air Force. One was Robert Neal Collins (a cousin), one was William Clyde Collins (my double-first cousin), and one was Francis Eugene Dyer (my brother).
At Choestoe Church where the three young men were members, we kept them in our prayers throughout the war, praying for their safety and return. They were on the list of many others from our community who followed their patriotic leanings and were willing to give all for our country. All three sons of Francis Thurman "Bob" Collins and Mary Viola Collins (she had died in 1937 before World War II began) served during World War II. Cecil W. Collins was in the U. S. Coast Guard; James Thompson Collins was in the U. S. Navy; and Robert Neal Collins was in the U. S. Air Force. All three of the Collins brothers and their cousins, Clyde Collins and Eugene Dyer, returned as decorated heroes from the conflict. The community and their relatives felt pride in their noble service.
Following World War II, Robert Neal Collins, Sr. resumed his life, but kept his ties to the U. S. Air Force by serving in the Reserves. For twenty-seven years he served his country, retiring in 1970 with the rank of major. During the Vietnam Conflict, he was activated and spent sixteen months with Airlift 445 at Dobbins Air Force Base, flying to England and Vietnam. As a certified flight instructor, he taught many in the North Georgia area how to fly.
He was a noted teacher. In 1954 he received the Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Georgia and in 1964 the Master of Science degree from George Peabody College.
He taught mathematics at Union County High School, his alma mater, and in night classes at Young Harris College. Known for his wry wit and humor, he had the ability to make his classroom one of ease, yet of strong purpose. Many former students rise up and call him blessed.
On October 19, 1951, he married beautiful Ruby Rogers, daughter of Thomas Franklin and Jessie Teague Rogers. To Neal and Ruby were born three children: Robert Neal, Jr. on November 18, 1953; Rhenee on January 2, 1955; and Joseph R., born June 15, 1961. Family was important to this couple. They reared their children and cherished their grandchildren as they arrived. At the time of Neal's death on March 14, 2007, they had six grandchildren and two step-grandchildren. Ruby and Neal celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in October, 2001. Relatives and friends expressed the love and admiration they felt for this couple.
Church and a right relationship with the Lord were important to Robert Neal Collins, Sr. He was a Sunday School teacher, director of the Sunday School for years, and a long-time ordained deacon of Choestoe Baptist Church where he grew up. His steady influence and eye for fair administration led the church through years of growth, then through reversals to renewed growth and redirection. Neal sought the leadership of God and led others to depend on Him.
Family has suggested that memorial donations may be made to the Choestoe Church Building Fund for the church's new Family Life Center that Neal helped to engineer.
I hope you re-read the lines of "High Flight." Major Robert Neal Collins had the lofty experiences so aptly penned by John Gillespie McGee, Jr. In addition, R. Neal had the experience of seeing insight blossom on the faces of students as he taught them and they responded to his instruction. Whether he was guiding an eager student in the intricacies of flight or opening up the secrets of mathematics to a high school or college student, he was himself both learner and teacher. As Henry Adams stated: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." We remember you gratefully, Major Robert Neal Collins, Jr.
c 2007 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published May 24, 2007 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.