Only special friendships endure over a lifetime. On the first Thursday of every month, four men from the Jacksonville High School (JHS) Class of 1961 (well, really one is from the class of 1960, but has been adopted into the 1961 class, they say) meet up at the Knights of Columbus Hall. They have been doing this since May 2006. It’s usually the four of them, but they have a blue notebook that anyone from their class who joins them signs.
These four men also all share the experience of military service during wartime, but each served in a different division of the armed forces. There is Army Specialist 4 (E-4) Robert “Bob” Northrop, the adopted JHS class of 1960 graduate, U.S. Army; Sergeant Dick Matthews, U.S. Marine Corps; Lieutenant Colonel Roger “Rog” Riggs, U.S. Air Force; and Seaman (E-3) Ted Deen, U.S. Navy.
All four men, along with Ross Chumley from the class of 1960 (U.S. Army), boarded the Land of Lincoln Honor Flight on Tuesday, May 23. Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created through donations, that transports America’s Veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends. Northrop and the other men have gone to see of many of the Honor Flights leave and arrive back in Springfield in the past and say big crowds gather each time.
Dick Matthews organized the group and sent their applications in on November 20, 2015, but with 583 ahead of them in the Land of Lincoln area, they waited. On February 4, 2017, they received word their flight would be in May.
Robert “Bob” Northrop grew up in Winchester. He started school in a one-room country schoolhouse where his teacher was his great aunt; then, in sixth grade he joined the Jacksonville school district and he met the other three men in high school.
Northrup was drafted into the Army on October 5, 1960. He served 23 months and 16 days with Border Patrol at Fulda Gap in Germany from 1960-1962. Northrop said, “On our first day they told us if the Russians decide to come through, they will come through here. And if they do, you will last 13 seconds.” American troops defended that position for 40 years after World War II. During the Cold War, Russian forces were stationed along the border, ready to cross the plain and reach the Rhine River. Fulda Gap was the widest of the invasion corridors through the hills of Germany’s central uplands.
After his service, Northrop returned to Jacksonville and married Rita Ann Shelburn in 1963. They have one son, three grandchildren and one great-grandson. Northrop was a tractor mechanic and worked form Howell Electric for 32 years. But Northrop’s big love and hobby was to race cars when he was younger and several of his cars were in national car magazines. He still loves working on and restoring cars in his garage.
Dick Matthews, who was born at Passavant Hospital on the same day at same hospital as Rita Northrop, went to Washington Elementary School, before joining the others at JHS. Matthews went to San Diego, California, on September 1, 1964, and served in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years until 1967. He served in Vietnam.
Dick returned to Jacksonville and married Brenda Stephenson on in 1970. He and his wife have a son and a daughter, plus six grandchildren, all girls. Matthews worked at IGA for 18 years and a convenience store for 18 years. He also served as Scout Master for Troop #107 for many years; similarly, fellow classmate and Veteran Ted Deen served as Scout Master for Troop #109 at Grace United Methodist Church. Matthews now works for the Illinois State Police in the Firearms Services Bureau and volunteers as a docent at New Salem and Lincoln’s Tomb.
Riggs started his flight training at Jacksonville Municipal Airport with Carmen “Bogey” Burgard, owner of the Jacksonville Flying Service and airport manager, as his flight instructor. He earned his private pilot certificate in 1963 and his commercial pilot certificate and flight instructor rating in 1965. Riggs earned his commission in 1967. His first duty station with the 345th Tactical Airlift Squadron at Ching Chuan Kang (CCK) Republic of China Air Base, Taiwan, where he flew C-130s all over Southeast Asia from October 20, 1968, through January 1970. Riggs flew all his missions to South Vietnam. He flew the C-130 cargo plane (four-engine turboprop) on 525 sorties in country. After Vietnam, he continued his military career including on an Alaskan mountain top at Indian Mountain Air Force Station as an instructor and the director of safety at the Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters in Arkansas. He married Marilyn White in 1974 and they have two children and three grandsons.
Riggs continued his service as an executive pilot for the State of Illinois. He retired from the State of Illinois in 2002, proud he never so much as scratched an airplane. He wrote a book about his life and aviation career as an historical document for his family. He is working on streamlining the book for publication since so many others have asked to read it. Riggs said writing it was good therapy for many things. When asked if he had a name for the book, he said if it is published he might call it Hogs, Hercs and Heroes.
Ted Deen was born in Beardstown. He said he met Riggs in first grade at South Elementary School in Mrs. Lansink’s class. They were also the first class to attend Turner Junior High School. Deen joined the U.S. Navy right out of high school. He was in the service for four years from 1961-1965. Deen served aboard the Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer USS Waldron (DD699). Deen said the destroyer was in the Atlantic side, which differed from the rest of the men in the group. The USS Waldron operated in the Atlantic and in European waters. Waldron was extensively modernized in 1962, then resumed her Atlantic fleet career.
After his military service, Deen returned to Jacksonville. He married Mary Christine on June 3, 1968. They had five children, three girls and two boys. He said one of his daughters, Anne, played volleyball for St. Francis and was a four-year All American. They now have ten grandchildren. Deen has worked for Hutchison Engineering, Inc., and in 2018 he will celebrate his 50th year with the company.
On the night before the flight, the four men attended a dinner at the VFW in Springfield and met all the other participants and their guardians, who travelled with the Veterans holding on to medicines, carrying water and making sure they have everything they needed on the trip. Members of Dick Matthews’ family were their guardians, except Greta Hardwick of Beardstown, who aided Northrop.
On Tuesday, May 24 the group met at 4:30 a.m. at Springfield Capitol Airport. The Honor Flight Organization arranged for wheelchairs in Washington, D.C. for the 45 men in wheelchairs and for the three buses that transported all the Veterans and their guardians. The four JHS grads said there were many “surprises” on the flight and trip that they don’t want to give away for others who take the flight, but the trip was made very special for everyone.
Northrop and Deen noted that the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was very moving and that they had a special place of honor in the front where they could all see. Northrop said afterwards they were walking along and a group of about 100 school children moved off the sidewalk to let them through and clapped for them as they went by. He also said Senator Sam McCann and Congressman Darin LaHood met the group at the WWI Memorial and shook their hands.
Riggs had been looking forward to seeing the Air Force Display in Washington, D.C., and said it didn’t disappoint, with three arches going in three different directions symbolizing the Air Force connection with ground, air and space.
The group returned to Springfield at 9:30 p.m. after a whirlwind day of visiting memorials in Washington, D.C., including the those for World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam Veterans (Wall), U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force, Lincoln Memorial, Air and Space Museum, Arlington National Cemetery and Tomb of the Unknowns and Changing of the Guard. When they got off the plane they were greeted by crowds lining the halls of the terminal all the way to the baggage claim area. All those people came to clap, shake their hands and thank those on the Honor Flight for their service to our freedoms and our country. Riggs said there were dozens of Springfield fireman — and some Girl Scouts gave the men boxes of cookies. He choked up when talking about it, as did the Northrop. He said bikers, ministers, reenactors in WWII army uniforms, strangers and family were together clapping and saying, “Welcome home.” Classmate Dick Sweeney who is the bartender at the K.C. Hall in Jacksonville was there and so was Governor Rauner, who came out to greet and shake hands with each Veteran.
All the classmates agree that it was a wonderful experience and they were glad that Matthews had gotten them all organized to share another life experience together.