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He led by example

Maj. Gen. Hemphill passes away at age 93

A tireless advocate for soldiers and their families, Maj. Gen. John Hemphill, pictured here with his wife, Peggy, passed away on May 20, 2021. Photo credit: Courtesy photo

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From the time he was about six years old growing up in Boise, Idaho, John Allen Hemphill knew that he wanted to serve in the military.

In high school he was an all-state center on the football team. A Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadet in both high school and for a short time at Michigan State University, he earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Nicknamed "Johnny Hemphill," he earned his commission as an infantry officer in 1951.

Retired Maj. Gen. Hemphill peacefully passed away on May 20 at the age of 93 at his home in Steilacoom, Washington.

"He is a true American hero, and certainly one who put his people and his mission above his own personal safety ... as evidenced by his actions during the Korean War," wrote John Caulfield, Lakewood's City Manager.

Hemphill is survived by Peggy, his wife of 69 years, five daughters, 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

As an infantry officer he led soldiers in combat in Korea and Vietnam; he was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars, and three Purple Hearts. After a legendary 34 year career, he retired in 1985 and settled in Steilacoom.

"He talked like an infantry officer," recalled Dick Muri, Mayor of Steilacoom, "and I am smiling as I remember all the valuable conversations I had with him."

Never losing sight of the soldiers who wear the cloth of this country, he tirelessly worked on their behalf.

"General Hemphill always had the soldiers in his lens," wrote retired Maj. Gen. James Collins, former Deputy Commanding General for I Corps. "He was straight forward; filled with passion for our Army; and guided by love and commitment to his family."

Much of his efforts focused on the Association of the United States Army  (AUSA) and its mission to support military families and the communities surrounding Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

"You give back to the country that gave to you, that's how I see it," Hemphill once said.

Carlene Joseph knows the strength of his commitment. Three days after she became the president of the AUSA's Captain Meriwether Lewis Chapter at JBLM in 2010, Hemphill visited her.

"He stopped by my office and wanted to know how I planned to take care of 19,000 soldiers returning from the war in three months," she said. "My heart sank!"

His question led to their joint effort in league with community leaders to establish a dozen AUSA subchapters in local municipalities to better serve military families.

"It was a difficult time for military families back then, and he sincerely wanted to make a difference in their lives," said Joseph.

His sense of devotion also led him to found the Kiwanis Club of Steilacoom; chair numerous successful bond and levy campaigns in support of the Steilacoom Historical School District No. 1; reignite the Steilacoom Citizen's Fireworks Committee; and play a major role in the SteilacoomChamber of Commerce. In 1998 he was honored as Steilacoom's Citizen of the Year.

But through it all, Hemphill never forgot that it is the soldier who is most important in the military and community.

"He was straightforward ... in his paying honor to those who served," added Collins.

This became most clear in his years-long effort to fund the establishment of the Captain Meriwether Lewis Memorial Park just inside the Liberty Gate at JBLM.

When Hemphill learned that Sgt. John Ordway, who volunteered to serve on the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) had all but been forgotten, he resolved to honor him.

"He made sure Ordway's statue was included in a place of honor equal to that of the expedition's leaders," wrote Eileen Hemphill-Haley of her father's efforts. "It was one of the first statues anywhere of its kind to honor an enlisted man."

This is the lasting trademark of the straight-talking Hemphill - a brave soldier, a gifted civic leader and mentor, and a loving husband and grandfather who never forgot soldiers.

"Encourage people to visit the Lewis and Clark/Corps of Discovery monument at JBLM," concluded Hemphill-Haley. "It was his gift to history."

And to all soldiers and their families - past, present and future.

Requiesce in pace.

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