LEXINGTON — Bonita Porter Spurlock remembers the day the phone call came. She was 5 years old — old enough to know something bad had happened in her close-knit family, too young then to fully grasp its impact.
The year was 1965. Army Pfc. Milton Lee Olive, 18, her second cousin, had died in Vietnam using his body to absorb a grenade’s blast. His sacrifice saved four platoon members in that jungle in Vietnam and brought the pain of his loss home to Holmes County a world away.
There was the drive to Ebenezer that night, to the home of Eva Redmond Olive, the grandmother who had raised him.
“I can remember walking into my Aunt Eva’s house and her crying, ‘My baby, my baby, my baby …,’” Spurlock says.
Olive was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest and most prestigious military honor, for his valor that day.
Tributes to Olive include a park named in his honor in his native Chicago, a state of Mississippi historical marker south of Lexington and the nearby Milton Olive Center, a civic building at Walden Chapel United Methodist Church in Goodman and facilities at Fort Campbell and Fort Benning.
More than 50 years after his final heroic act, Olive’s courage will be saluted again in a new monument on the lawn of the Holmes County Courthouse Square, scheduled to be unveiled and dedicated on the Fourth of July. Attendant ceremonies at the Lexington Multi-purpose Building and the Courthouse Square will include patriotic music, military tributes and an address by National Guard Maj. Gen. Janson D. Boyles, adjutant general of Mississippi.
Big banners stretch across two sides of the Courthouse Square, proclaiming July 4 Milton Olive Day.
The monument, in the works for more than a year, has brought together a diverse committee of Holmes Countians, crossing racial, gender, age and state lines to bring additional honor to the hero and cement his story in county memory for generations.
“Absolutely providential,” says lawyer Don Barrett, who envisioned and oversaw the project.
The spark struck last summer, he says, from a series of pointed questions from his granddaughter, Aden, 11 at the time and visiting from Nashville. He had taken her to see the state historical marker for Olive on Memorial Day 2016. “She asked me, ‘Where’s his monument?’ and I said, ‘In Chicago.’” But hadn’t he grown up in Holmes County? Why doesn’t he have a monument on the courthouse lawn?
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” Barrett says.
He researched the cost of a monument, using his experience as a director of the Civil War Trust. The Holmes County Board of Supervisors authorized it by unanimous vote, and without his even asking, donated, too.
It’s a project they wanted to be part of, says county administrator Charlie Joiner.
“For us, it was a symbol of courage. It was a symbol of valor. It was a young man and we never really thought about the color of his skin,” but his roots in the county and the values his grandparents instilled in him.
“It’s a true project of unity, really,” she says. “It’s not perfect, but I think that we are a beginning to what the world needs to see — that people can live together in unity, and that we can honor and celebrate one of our own, and it doesn’t matter what color that person is.”
Caroline Gray-Primer, historic resources specialist with state archives and history, had helped the Holmes County NAACP and Freedom Democratic Party apply for the historical marker for Olive in 2007. On advice from Olive’s childhood friend, Leonard “Hamp” Hampton, she joined the effort.
Jerry Wiley, an Army veteran and native Holmes Countian now in Springfield, Ill., came on board. He had grown up knowing Olive’s story, including one high school teacher’s re-enactments of his sacrifice. Wiley was among seven classmates from Lexington who enlisted in the military and, after their service, continued their interest in veterans matters and their home community.
“This is a way to honor an American hero and inspire others to serve,” he says.
When Barrett realized the connection with Olive’s surviving family members in this small community, “we found out that the family was old and dear friends,” he says, turning to Spurlock, “Is that fair to say?”
“More than fair,” she says.
Their fathers were close friends in the 1930s.
Barrett recruited his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Katherine Barrett Riley.
“I have a passion for my little town,” says Riley, the city and county board attorney. “Our young people need to hear this story of this bravery and self-sacrifice which is so rare nowadays.”
Holmes Community College head football coach Jeff Koonz joined the team, too. Originally from upstate New York, he had heard of Olive’s heroism from retired head coach Robert Pool a few years ago, when HCC started a Milton Lee Olive scholarship. Koonz, whose only goal was to help with the ceremony, he says, was shocked when told the monument fundraising’s excess would go to the scholarship fund.
“To have it fully endowed this fast is, again, another Milton Lee Olive III miracle.
“What’s this all about? It’s about making sure the memory never goes away,” Koonz says.
The need-based scholarship and the Milton Lee Olive Courage and Character Award, given annually, do that as well. MLO stickers will go on football helmets.
“My players need heroes. There’s not enough of them out there. … Here’s one in our backyard. That’s why I’m really jumping on this. My kids need to know what a real hero is.”
Fundraising surpassed the $60,000 needed for the monument to more than $85,000, Barrett says. “Every nickel over 60 grand will go to the scholarship … a living monument.”
One donation in particular stood out to him, from Vietnam veteran Johnny Dale, who drew a crumpled $100 bill from his pocket and said, “I have been waiting 50 years for somebody to honor my friend, Milton Olive.”
The granite monument, approximately 12 feet tall, will have four sides: a bronze bas relief of Olive’s likeness with birth and death dates; the Bible verse “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” John 15:13; the Medal of Honor citation; and, ‘Erected by the united black and white citizens of Holmes County and dedicated on July 4, 2017.”
Olive’s heroism gives the family a sense of pride and honor, Spurlock says.
“Those are the type of values that were instilled in us, growing up.
“In every one of the family households that you would go in … you were going to find a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King and you were going to find a picture of Milton Olive. That’s just how important he was to the family, he is to the family.”
In the early 1990s, one of the men saved by Olive’s sacrifice, Lt. Jimmy Stanford, traveled to Holmes County with Olive’s father to lay a flower on his grave at West Grove M.B. Church cemetery. The family gathered there. Emotions were full to overflowing.
“We started singing and it was just a really beautiful experience for me,” Spurlock says.
Work on the monument has touched her.
“I’m so very thankful. I’m so very proud.”
She’s sorry that Olive’s father and his older cousin, Wilbur Redmond, who took up the mantle of memorializing the soldier, aren’t alive to see it.
“It’s been a long time coming, but finally it’s here,” she says.
The Milton Lee Olive Monument Dedication will be July 4 at the Lexington Multi-purpose Building, 22571 Depot St. (Mississippi 12 East). A full schedule of events is below:
9:30 a.m. Meet and greet with coffee and doughnuts
10 a.m. Call to order, welcome and invocation, patriotic music by pianist Bruce Levingston
10:25 a.m. Recognition of special guests
10:40 a.m. Address by Maj. Gen. Janson D. Boyles
11 a.m. Adjourn to Courthouse Square (transportation provided between Multi-purpose Building and Square)
On the Courthouse Square
11 a.m. Concert by the Magnolia Brass Quintet of the 41st Army Band
11:30 a.m. Presentation of Colors by Bravo Company 1108th Brigade, National Anthem by gospel/jazz singer Ora Reed; remarks by Olive family member Bonita Porter Spurlock, HCC football coach Jeff Koonz and Maj. Gen. Janson D. Boyles
11:40 a.m. Unveiling of the monument by Aden Barrett and Kelby Wade
11:45 a.m. 21-gun salute by Honor Guard, 1108th Brigade and playing of “Taps”