Celebrating the life of a vibrant spirit

One of my favorite photographs, displayed where I can see it often, is a candid shot of my dad with John McNaull.

They stand talking and laughing amid the backdrop of antique tractors, a passion they shared.

McNaull died this past week at age 91. He packed a lot in to those 91 years. After his Ashland High School graduation in 1939, he worked as a farm equipment mechanic at Ashland Truck and Implement.

Military career

In 1942, the world war simmering, he enlisted in the International Harvester Maintenance Battalion of the U.S. Army, serving as a tank mechanic in the European Theater.

During World War II, he was part of the initial Allied drive across Europe. His 12th Armored Division liberated three concentration camps, an amazing accomplishment of the war.

He married his high school sweetheart, Bonita Heifner, while home on a weekend military pass in January of 1944, and then returned to serve for the duration. Theirs is an American love story if ever there was one, having celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary last month with their three sons and one daughter and their families.

Back home

After the war, John returned to Ashland Truck and Implement, working his way up to sales. He and his wife would later buy this business, along with his sister and brother-in-law, Vera and Eldon Crone. With hard work and business savvy in a changing agricultural world, it remains a family business to this day.

With both my dad and John being descendants of Ashland County pioneers in the Eckley community, my family shared a deep connection to the McNaulls. I had interviewed and written pieces on both John’s mother and mother-in-law, both admired for their sharp mind well in to very old age.

When my children were young, I would often stop to visit John and Bonita in the home they built together on the family farm. I gave my children instructions to be on their best behavior. John once noticed that my young son was eyeing a candy dish.

“Is there something you’d like to ask me?” John said to Cort. “Well, you don’t know me much,” my son replied, “but my name is Cort and I really like candy.”

John chuckled and said, “Just like Charlie!” referring to my great-grandfather Charlie Myers, who had once been John’s neighbor.

Living history

There aren’t many people who spanned the generations with memories like John McNaull. While writing a complicated and lengthy historical series set in my family’s ancestral grounds which made references to various forgotten landmarks, my father helped me tremendously. Once in awhile, even he would be stumped.

“Let’s call John McNaull,” my dad would say, “he goes back a little further than I do, and I bet he will know.”

Every single time, John knew the answer.

Contributions

His wealth of knowledge was shared as he served on the Ashland County Historical Society board and as a founding member of the Ashland County Yesteryear Machinery Club. In their retirement, John and Bonita traveled to various schools to share their World War II experiences.

John was instrumental in helping to create a local veterans video-audio history, and remained active in church and the 12th Armored Division Association, serving as national president. He remained close to his World War II comrades.

Both John and my dad knew antique tractors in a keen way. The photograph I love so much was taken in 1992 at a tractor show. My dad would have just turned 60, and John, 72. They are sharing a chuckle over some comment, and their happiness shines brightly.

It captures a wonderful slice of time, before illness and time dimmed those vibrant spirits.

About the Author

Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college. More Stories by Judith Sutherland

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