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Almont favorite son returns to his roots


General Robert Shoemaker says he learned values, ethics in hometown


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General Shoemaker lends his signature to an Air Cavalry flag to be hung at the American Legion post. photo by Tom Wearing.

October 08, 2008
ALMONT — Not many Americans can say that a high school and a piece of music have been named in their honor, But U.S. Army General Robert M. Shoemaker can.

The 84-year-old Almont native was feted this week during a pair of ceremonies acknowledging Shoemaker's illustrious army career and his hometown connection.

Born in 1924, Shoemaker was raised on a dairy farm about a mile west of the Village of Almont. It was an upbringing that provided him with the tools he would need to reach the pinnacle of military service.

During a tribute to Shoemaker at Burley Park Monday morning, Michigan's only four-star General credited his parents and the community for instilling him with traditional values.

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"I had good parents with good values," said Shoemaker. "They taught me discipline and the importance of a good work ethic.

"I remember working at the old Bowman's Drug Store downtown for $6 a week," he recalled. "On Sundays they let me run the store by myself."

Taking on responsibility and gaining the trust of others helped Shoemaker reach the heights in all of his future endeavors.

After graduating from Almont's Class of 1941, he moved on to West Point, where he graduated in 1946 and was commissioned into the infantry.

He quickly rose through the ranks, serving in Europe, Korea, Iran and three tours of duty in Vietnam. He logged more than 4,000 hours as a pilot, including 1,400 combat hours flying helicopters in Vietnam.

Shoemaker's contributions as commander of the 1st Air Cavalry are credited with having saved the lives of countless American soldiers in Vietnam, a fact aptly noted by Almont American Legion member Joe Cain in his speech on Monday.

"Had it not been for you there would be a lot more names on that Wall in Washington, D.C.," Cain said of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Also in attendance was Jack Shoemaker, who spoke proudly of his brother's successes and accomplishments in the military and after his retirement from the Army.

"Had we known as kids that he was going to grow up to be a general, we probably would have treated him with more respect," quipped Jack.

"Bob was a magnificent field officer and he was regarded as one of the best tacticians in the military," Jack noted. "At one point, he commanded the forces of all of our troops in the western hemisphere. To think that a man from Almont reached that position is remarkable."

Among the many highlights at the Burley Park ceremony was a performance of the "General Shoemaker March" by the Almont High School band. The music was composed by Ken C. Wood, a fellow 1st Cavalry member who was commissioned two years ago to write the music.

After counting off the musical tribute, Almont band Director Brian McCloskey turned the baton over to General Shoemaker, who led the young musicians through a spirited rendition of the march.

"That was only the second time I've waved the baton for a band," Shoemaker said later. "I think the band members did a lot better than I did."

During a brief aside, he recalled having performed at the Burley Park site himself, when it housed the old band shell.

"I played a snare drum and was accompanying an old drummer boy who had served in the Civil War," Shoemaker told the audience. "He must have been in his upper eighties at that time. But I can say that I played with a drummer boy from the Civil War."

Shoemaker acknowleged that his former hometown has gone through many physical changes since his family moved away in 1944.

"It's a lot different now," he said. "Some of my best friends are gone now and I'm the only male survivor from my graduating class. Of course, there were only about seven or eight of us. It was mostly girls.

"It's still nice to come back," he said. "I was here for the 2005 Homecoming and it's been great to see friends like Gertie Brooks, the Farley girls (Mary and Margaret) and the Waltons (Betty and Bob). Almont is the town I was born, and it's where I learned my values and ethics."

Since his retirement from the military in 1982, Shoemaker has remained active. He's served as a county commissioner in Bell County, Texas; has been an executive with the Boy Scouts of America and is on the United Way Board in Texas.

In 2000, the school district in Killeen, Texas named its high school in honor of General Shoemaker. The Robert M. Shoemaker High School currently has more than 2,200 students, and is oft-visited by its namesake.

"That's probably the greatest honor I've ever been given," said Shoemaker. "I feel like I have 2,200 grandchildren at that school. I try to get to as many football games, concerts and activities as I can.

"We just lost a big football game this week," he said. "It was a real heartbreaker."

In his concluding remarks, General Shoemaker acknowledged Almont's Henry Stephens Library, which will be the recipient of his collection of U.S. Army memorabilia. He also thanked all those responsible for coordinating the local events and for turning out on his behalf.

"I'm thankful that you've let me come back to this place where good values are still instilled," he said. "I'm so glad I was able to grow up in a town like this.

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