Sensational Seniors – August 2017
Robert Atkinson, known in Jacksonville as “Bo,” first moved here in 2000 with his effervescent wife, Iris, and the two immediately became a popular and well-known couple around town. Bo’s quiet and unassuming manner belies the fact that he had a distinguished career in the army as a helicopter pilot and commander. But, before getting into that, as usual, I like to start with the beginning.
Bo was born on March 31, 1930 in Winnsboro, South Carolina where his parents worked for Winnsboro Mills, a tire factory that had moved from the north because labor was cheaper and cotton, which was used in tire cords, was readily available. Bo, his parents and his two sisters lived in company-owned housing that was rented to workers at a reasonable rate. Ironically, when Bo’s father lost his job, they were forced out of the housing even though his mother continued to work for Winnsboro Mills for 40 years. An able student and an All-Star football player in high school, Bo was awarded a four-year athletic scholarship to Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he was a linebacker and offensive guard. While still in high school, he had joined the National Guard, anxious to receive the small stipend for being in the Guard. He transferred National Guard units when he moved to Clinton for college but then changed to the college’s ROTC program, which would lead to his military career.
Bo graduated from college in 1952 with an education degree but immediately entered the army as a second lieutenant just as the Korean War was winding down. Bo’s Korean-bound unit was diverted to Japan, and, because there had been such a heavy loss of army officers in Korea, the army started offering regular commissions to ROTC officers. This was to prove pivotal in Bo’s rise in rank. Young Atkinson spent three years on duty in Japan. There, he became a 1st Lieutenant, was recruited to play on an All-Star football team competing against the Air Force, Marines and the Navy and had a “wonderful time.” One evening, while sitting at a Japanese bar, he struck up a conversation with a fellow officer who had silver wings on his lapel. “When I asked about the wings, I found out that he was a pilot and, while holding the same rank as me, he was making $150 more a month. I figured, heck I’m as smart as this guy, so I applied for flight school, was accepted and got my $150 more a month. My initial motivation was not for the thrill of flying but for the extra money.”
His fixed wing flight training was at Fort Ord in California, where the army policy was that once a pilot mastered flying airplanes, they were cross-trained as helicopter pilots. It was during this time at Fort Ord that Bo’s personal life took a positive turn because, while on leave in 1957, he was encouraged to ask an attractive girl to dance. That was his introduction to Iris, who in 1959, was to become his wife. He remembers, “I had to log a certain amount of flying hours each month to keep my silver wings, so I would check out a fixed wing airplane and fly to Hayward, CA where Iris was working as a secretary for a construction company. We would have lunch and then I’d fly back to base, accomplishing two important tasks in the process!”
Shortly after Bo and Iris were married he was transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia to receive paratrooper training, another army requirement for pilots. For their graduation parachute jump, family and friends were invited, and Iris was proudly in attendance. Bo had been told that his jump number was 6 and Iris was carefully counting the jumpers, but a last minute change was made and the re-assigned sixth jumper bailed out, but his parachute did not open as expected. While it eventually did, and number 6 and Bo made safe landings, it was a nervous time for Iris. During the Fort Benning time, their son, Alan, was born and then in 1964 daughter, Amy, joined the family. After more base transfers and after achieving the rank of major, in 1966, Bo experienced his first tour of duty in Vietnam where eventually he was assigned as the Commander of the 155th Helicopter Company in Ban Me Thout, Vietnam. This 12-month tour of duty has many memories for Bo, some of them sad and some with humor and happiness. He relates that he “Wrote Iris a letter every day because there was nothing else to do at night and the mail was free.” He remembers fondly how his company informally adopted a Catholic Mission in Ban Me Thout that had been in existence for some 57 years. One of their activities was to throw a Christmas party for the missionary children, and it was a glorious time for all of them. Tragically, when the North Vietnam Army (NRA) invaded, they strafed the mission, causing multiple injuries and deaths and then force-marched the survivors some 300 miles to Hanoi with many perishing along the way.
After his first 12-month tour was over, Bo came back to the states and to Fort Walters, Texas where his family joined him. It was at Fort Walters that he became the Safety Director for the helicopter school where he conducted safety training for helicopter pilots and for the maintenance personnel, as well. In 1971 he was sent back to Vietnam for his second tour of duty but this time as a Lieutenant Colonel, the rank at which he eventually retired. While he had flown almost daily during his first Vietnam tour, he now was a member of the Division Staff and had mainly a desk job, not his favorite activity.
After this second Vietnam tour, he was transferred to Arizona for a stint before a reassignment to California where he ended up as an advisor for the Sacramento-based National Guard, a position he held until his army retirement in 1973. Shortly after Bo’s Army retirement, Iris decided to go back to work, as their children were raised and she was “antsy” to do something. Iris took a secretarial position with a law firm which eventually led to Bo moving into real estate sales and management as one of the law firm partners built an 18-unit condominium unit and needed someone to manage it. Iris suggested Bo, and this was his next employment adventure. When the 18 units were sold, Bo started looking for something else to do and answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for a position with a commercial insurance company that was looking for someone to supervise safety inspections. With Bo’s helicopter safety training and management, he was a natural fit for this company, and he was to spend ten years with the company before officially retiring in 1993. Iris and Bo spent seven more years in California before making their first move to southern Oregon in 2000. Their introduction to Southern Oregon came through a niece and nephew who had moved to Ashland. Later, their son, Alan, retired from a Silicon Valley tech firm and moved to Southern Oregon, as well. After several family visits, they decided to relocate to Oregon; they rented for a year and then found their dream home off Old Stage Road. Unfortunately, Iris’s brother became seriously ill, and in 2004 they decided to move back to California to take care of him but he died just before their house was sold. They were now without a home, but they needed to take care of the brother’s estate, so they made a two-year return to California before moving to their Vintage Circle home in Jacksonville.
For many years Bo and Iris were active members of the Jacksonville Boosters Club helping with the yearly Boosters Yard Sale and serving as docents for the bi-annual Historic Home and Garden Tour. In addition, Bo with his military background, was a mainstay of the Boosters Flag Committee.
Their lives slowed down when Iris’s health began to deteriorate and a serious fall in January 2016 accelerated her growing dementia and caused other health-related issues. She is now in Farmington Square in Medford and, while she recognizes Bo, she is unable to communicate. No matter, her ever-faithful Bo visits her twice a day. “Iris sleeps a lot now so I often just sit there, wait and watch her and remember all the wonderful times we had together.” While Iris’s poor health has taken its toll on Bo, it has not killed his lively spirit. He believes firmly in the medicinal powers of red wine and can be found most Wednesday evenings at South Stage Cellars enjoying a glass of red wine and listening to the music. If you have the opportunity, stop by some Wednesday evening and thank this gracious man for his service to our country.