To those of you that have followed my weekly presentations about our many “unsung heroes” here within our beautiful community, you know I derive my greatest joy when I can tell the story of one of our military veterans who comes home from war and involves themselves in helping others right here in Calvert County. Retired Marine Officer Julian Marcus [Mark] Willis has put a big smile on my face following a recent interview about his life of “giving back”. He too has a wonderful story to tell.
Mark was born just across the Potomac River at Fort Belvoir into an Army family and was an “Army brat”. During his first 10 years, the family moved to Fairbanks, Alaska and Ayer, Massachusetts prior to his dad’s retirement in 1969. Thinking about what he wanted to do as a civilian, his dad decided he wanted to try tobacco farming so they moved to Calvert County. Mark already had deep roots here as his mom and her entire family were born and raised here. But, as he tells me, the move was a big change of life for him at an early age as “he had to go from riding his bicycle everyday as he pleased to working the farm with his many cousins”! His family became tenant farmers for Buddy Parran at his “Cage Farm” and for Doctor Jett on the “Small Reward Farm” now known as “Marley Run”.
Now I don’t know much about farming tobacco, but I know it is very labor intensive. In our early days here in Southern Maryland, I remember driving by large fields of this once big cash crop and witnessing large groups of people cutting the leaves and taking them to old barns to dry. Evidently, once the leaf is mature there is a small window of time for harvesting and it required many people to come together to get the job done.
I am unsure of how much passion Mark had for life on the farm, but he did enlist with the Marine Corps in the Early Entry Program prior to graduating from Calvert High in 1978. His timing was great as it was about that time the use of tobacco was being “deglamorized” throughout the country and the government was actually paying farmers not to grow it anymore! Two months following graduation, Mark headed for boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina and once more his life was to take another dramatic change.
The Marine life was good for this young man and he was good for the Corps as he was meritoriously promoted to Private First Class, and rose to Sergeant in just 18 months! In 1982, 4 years after enlisting, he became a Marine Drill Instructor, a role made famous by Lou Gossett in the film “Officer and a Gentleman”. And, don’t you know, two years later, he became the first Marine Instructor assigned to the US Merchant Marine Academy. This school not only prepares future civilian officers for our commercial fleets, but also prepares students to one day become commissioned officers in our armed services. I am wondering if Mark might have been the “prototype” for the Gossett role? Hmmm.
He attended the University of Florida where he became a “Gator” and earned his degree. Upon graduation, was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and went on to an interesting officer career traveling the world in the defense of our country. One of his unique assignments trained him for the recovery of the lost remains of service members overseas. He was able to attend the Army’s Mortuary Affairs School while also attending the Army’s Logistics War College at Fort Lee, Virginia. It was the combination of his Marine Corps, Army Ranger, Airborne, and parachute rigger training that allowed him this opportunity.
Do you remember the name Adrian Cronauer of “Good Morning Viet Nam” fame? Robin Williams played him in this film. Adrian went to college and law school after his Air Force service and became a successful corporate businessman in radio broadcasting. I added this to our story as Adrian, in later life, became the head of the Missing In Action Committee under the Secretary of Defense during the 2nd Bush administration. He led delegations to foreign lands to keep alive our need to locate our fallen troops and return them home. Mark was trained to lead such groups. One of my finest memories was having Adrian and his wife to dinner one evening at my home here in Lusby in 2009. He was humorous and a delight to talk to!
Oops, sorry, I was distracted for a moment. Let me quickly speak of the multiple local organizations this “hero” volunteers for on a regular basis. It is an extensive list. I asked Mark how he came to be involved with so many causes? He related the call of President Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural address “ask what you can do for your country!” This led to his pursuit of a military career and community service where possible. It is Mark’s strongest belief that “we all owe a debt of gratitude, not only to our government, but to our communities as well”. It is his belief “it is within the community that the glue of national pride and survival is created and groomed”. Mark, we are in agreement on this; as a high school sophomore I stood in the snow and 20 degree weather on the US Capitol grounds when JFK gave that memorable speech. Upon graduation, I ran off to the Navy for 22 years and always gave Kennedy credit for my decision.
Here is a short list of Mark’s current active involvement:
- Lifelong supporter Relay for Life
- Member Calvert County Historical Society
- Board Member of Distinguished Young Women
- Board Member Friends of Jefferson Patterson Park
- Committee Member Jefferson Patterson Park Ladies Tea Committee
- Member of Calvert Marine Museum
- Member of Leadership Maryland Class of 2014
Finally, Mark expressed his fondness for Lincoln and Frederick Douglass; he often is asked to speak about leadership and uses “Lincoln on Leadership” by Donald T. Phillips as his inspiration. And I would be remiss not to mention the support of his wife Rebecca, children Amanda, Amber, and Julian and many cousins provide on a regular basis! He says two of his greatest heroes are his mother Lucy Willis and her brother Uncle Claude Jones. In closing, he states there is a no harder working group of people than our citizens who grew up here as tenant farmers!
Mark, first thank you once more for your service to our country! And thank you for all the volunteer work you provide us on a regular basis! Ooooorahhh Marine! Spiggy
If you know of an unsung citizen of Calvert County, please contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.