There were surely many more veterans than that, I thought, and I started poking around my files, looking for men and women I might have missed. Oscar Randall was a possible World War I veteran, but his draft card cast doubt — he claimed a service exemption on the basis that he was “rejected by recruiting officer.”
Nonetheless, I Googled Randall and was stunned to find that not only did he serve, he led troops in battle in France during World War I, received a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in Italy during the Second World War, and achieved the rank of colonel. The most amazing find: two photos of Randall from the Chicago Sun-Times archives for sale on eBay! I ordered them immediately, and they arrived in yesterday’s mail.
The first photo, taken after the First World War, depicts a smooth-faced, heavy-jowled man in officer’s uniform. Its reverse carries a scrap of newspaper article, as well as a note that the photo was copied from a portrait hanging in Randall’s living room.
The second photo, taken in 1982, shows a solemn-faced old man, silver hair swept back from his forehead, his eyes rheumy but mouth set firmly. Light from a window creates a dramatic chiaroscuro. On the back: a slightly longer clipping from the same article, detailing the colonel’s military achievements.
Oscar Randall was born 30 November 1896 in Washington DC, the first of George and Fannie Aldridge Randall‘s children born after their migration from Wayne County, North Carolina. After the War, he returned to college and received a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois. (He served as president of Tau chapter, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, while there.) Randall taught mathematics at Chicago’s DuSable High School for many years and also worked as a civil engineer for the city’s sanitation department. In the 1950’s, he served as Chief of the U.S. Military Mission to Liberia, which advised that country’s military on training and defense. He married twice, but had no children.
Oscar Randall died three years after his Chicago Sun-Times interview. He was 88 years old.
A memorial service for Oscar Randall, 88, a civil engineer, will be held at 11 a.m. June 9 in St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 3301 S. Wabash Ave. Mr. Randall, of the South Side, died April 8 in Veterans Administration Lakeside Medical Center. A native of Washington, D.C., Mr. Randall graduated from the University of Illinois and worked for the Chicago Sanitary District for nine years. Mr. Randall also taught mathematics at Du Sable High School. In 1918 he joined the 8th Illinois infantry regiment, one of the nation’s first black-led military units. He also served in World War II. Survivors include his wife, Hilda; a stepdaughter, Vera Levy; two stepgrandchildren; two stepgreat-grandchildren; three sisters; and a brother.
— Chicago Tribune, 23 May 1985.
[Sidenote: Pete Souza, who photographed Cousin Oscar, is now Chief Official White House photographer for President Barack Obama and Director of the White House Photography Office.]