“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”— Edith WhartonAmerican novelistFirst female recipient (1921),Pulitzer Prize for …
Learning of the retirement of Tennessee Commissioner of Veterans Services Many-Bears Grinder saddened many, especially those who appreciated her untiring advocacy for a new veterans home in Cleveland.
For eight years, the impassioned leader stood for all things veteran during her time in Nashville as part of the Gov. Bill Haslam administration.
For eight years, the bold visionary worked with local partisans to bring such a facility to Bradley County soil, encouraging us when we got down, reassuring us when all seemed lost and calming us when unsettling news tested our resolve.
For eight years, the retired colonel from the Tennessee Army National Guard — an Afghanistan veteran who might have become the Guard’s first female general had she not joined Haslam’s Cabinet — never wavered in her pledge that Tennessee’s fifth veterans home would come to our community.
For eight years, the lead humanitarian among veteran causes chipped away at one priority after another; among them veterans courts, higher education opportunities, life-changing employment initiatives, new veterans cemeteries in the state, annual summits for female veterans and finding answers to the growing crises of suicide and homelessness within the ranks of returning soldiers.
For eight years, this determined lady with the funny name did all that.
But in Bradley County, she will be remembered most for her work in bringing the dream of a veterans home to reality. Anyone who has followed the front-page headlines of the Cleveland Daily Banner in recent months knows it is finally coming to fruition … thanks to the hard work and the never-say-die mindset of Many-Bears Grinder, and others who worked alongside her.
The money is there, and so is the donated property. The architectural design is being tweaked using lessons learned from the recent construction of the state’s newest veterans home in Montgomery County.
All that is left is a groundbreaking, and then a festive dedication and ribbon cutting once the doors are ready to open.
Truly, it will be a time of celebration as it marks the final chapter in a book whose preface was written 15 years ago. Yet, in so many odd ways, it will bring a certain sadness … certainly not because of its historic arrival, but because so many who blazed its trail will not be a direct part of crossing the finish line.
Larry McDaris, executive director of the Bradley County Office of Veterans Services who spent years planning and communicating and strategizing for this moment, retired in late 2018. Another Veterans Service Officer — Joe Davis — who spent just as many years working for the same cause, retired before McDaris.
Others could be leaving the fold in time. Former Bradley County Commissioner Mark Hall, who co-chairs the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council, is headed for Nashville following his election to the state Legislature where he will represent District 24.
Hall’s co-chair, Cleveland resident and veteran Cid Heidel, continues his recovery from extensive heart surgery.
Commissioner Grinder’s retirement will come as the latest loss among those who sacrificed so much for Bradley County and Bradley Countians.
By no means is this intended to cast doubt on the new state Veterans Services commissioner. By all accounts, Gov.-elect Bill Lee has selected a qualified successor to Commissioner Grinder. She is Lt. Col. Courtney Rogers who gave 28 years of service to the United States Air Force and the Tennessee Air National Guard.
The new commissioner also spent three terms in Nashville as a state representative for the 45th Legislative District. Based on her credentials alone, she should be fine.
But it doesn’t mean Many-Bears … er, Commissioner Grinder … won’t be missed. She’ll be sorely missed, not because she is indispensable but because during her time in office she poured her soul into the cause of Tennessee veterans. And we in Cleveland and Bradley County are the beneficiaries of her big heart, her commitment to task and her refusal to give up … even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
With this kind of Opinion page tribute, you’d think I am her No. 1 fan. Truth is, I’ve never met the lady. I did interview her once over the telephone in a 45-minute chat shortly after learning a division of state government had rejected the 28-acre site on Westland Drive.
It fell to Commissioner Grinder to relay the bad news to local leaders, just a couple of days before Cleveland’s annual Veterans Day Ceremony. But she stayed strong in her resolve and I remember her words (paraphrased) to our community, “The next veterans home in Tennessee WILL be built in Bradley County, whether it’s on this site or another one.”
It was then I realized the lady had spunk.
I received another dose of it in that same phone call when she took me to task for the wording of a headline. Reporting on the state’s property rejection, our newspaper said the home’s progress was facing a temporary “halt.”
She didn’t like that word. It’s not in her vocabulary. And she told me so. We agreed to disagree. But I haven’t used “halt” in another veterans home headline since.
I wish Many-Bears Grinder could have shoveled some dirt at the groundbreaking. I wish she could have visited Cleveland to inspect construction. I wish she could have held the scissors to cut the ribbon at dedication.
She earned the right. She talked the talk of a leader. She walked the walk of a trailblazer.
If there is justice in this old world, life will be good to this lady of grace. And if the future paves Many-Bears a road back to Cleveland — if only for a visit — it will be a grand day for a community that owes her so much.
Many-Bears … I like that name.
And no, she is not Native American. But it’s still a story well worth the telling.
(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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