A leader for all seasons: The last of the Cold War generals loved the military and educating youth
By Steve Ranson, Nevada News Group
The Sparks native who served as the Silver State’s last Cold War Army general when he retired from the Nevada National Guard in 1988, first deployed to South Korea in the mid-1950s as an enlisted soldier and then led and mentored thousands of soldiers during his four decades of military service.
Not only did Brig. Gen. Douglas M. Byington ensure soldiers under his command were ready for any type of mission, but he was also an administrator for the Washoe County School District and involved community member. The 88-year-old Byington died last week after a lengthy illness.
Byington and his twin brother, Dallas, grew up in Sparks during the Great Depression and into the 1940s when war raged in both Europe and the Pacific. After Doug Byington graduated from Sparks High School in 1950, he joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in Reno, completed his basic training in San Diego and remained as a reservist until he graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno four years later.
UNEXPECTED DRAFT NOTICE
“I graduated. I did my student teaching,” Byington said during a 2005 interview with the Veterans History Project. “I was ready to teach until the Army wanted me.”
Byington received a notice in the mail that surprised him. He was being drafted.
“I told them I was in the naval reserve,” Byington recalled during his interview.
His plea fell on deaf ears.
Byington completed his Army basic training at Fort Ord, Calif., and once training ended, he headed for the Big Red One — the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas — in 1955. From there, his unit left for South Korea for 11 months before he returned home on a troop transport ship to Oakland, Calif., in 1957.
Byington said the 24th Infantry Division consisting between 1,200 to 1,400 soldiers took 19 days to complete the movement to Korea. From Fort Lewis, Wash., the soldiers left the Puget Sound for a short stop in Yokohama, Japan, before sailing to Pusan, a port city on the southeastern coast of South Korea. From there the soldiers were bused toward the Korean Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel, which separated North and South Korea..
“I said, ‘Sarge, where am I going?’” Byington, now a corporal, asked.
He was assigned to the 24th Medical Battalion two miles south of the DMZ where the wounded would be treated. As Byington recalled, it was one step below a MASH, a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
“So I get to go to the medical battalion,” Byington said. “I was in S-3 where they do operations.”
While with the battalion, Byington taught some classes, wrote lesson plans and informed the troops on requirements such as keeping forms up to date. He also became a bookkeeper for the officers’ club. Soldiers also did guard duty to protect the facilities, and twice during his time in Korea, Byington flew to Japan for R&R (rest and recuperation). Back home 9,000 miles away from the DMZ, Byington’s wife Nancy was teaching elementary school in Sparks.
LOVE OF MILITARY
Once Byington returned from the Korean peninsula, however, he still wanted to serve his country.
“I came home, joined the Nevada National Guard,” he said. “I was in the first OCS (Officer Candidate School) class in the state of Nevada. There were eight of us,” Byington remembered.
Byington received his commission as a lieutenant in 1958 and remained with the Nevada Army National Guard for 30 years before retiring on June 30, 1988. Once he completed OCS, Byington attended a 12-week officer basic course at Fort Bliss, Texas, the United States Army Air Defense center.
On the civilian side, Byington kept busy by completing his student teaching and then studying for a master’s degree in education and eventually a doctorate.
Longtime friend and fellow guardsman, Dave McNinch, said he first met Byington when they were both assigned to the 221st Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion.
“I first met and associated with Doug in 1961 at Camp Irwin (California),” McNinch said. “He was a platoon leader and I was a specialist 4. Later on, I had the privilege of working with him as we both progressed through the ranks until his final retirement.”
McNinch said his son and daughter had Byington as their principal, and they were very fond of him.
Retired Command Sgt. Major Wayne Willson cherished his friendship with Byington, especially during the 1980s when both men were in the Nevada Army National Guard. On several occasions, Byington would fly a small plane with guardsmen on board to training locations such as Fort Ord, Calif., or Gowan Field, Idaho, near Boise.
“Doug had always talked about going to Boise,” Willson said,
If Byington knew the sergeant major was on the road to see the troops, the general would ask to accompany Willson.
“He would go with me all the time,” he said.
Once Byington and Willson retired from the military, Willson said they would see each other at retirement parties or the annual military ball.
Glenna Smith, public affairs officer for the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno, remembers seeing Byington at the monthly AUSA dinners at least five years ago before the general’s health declined.
“He was so much fun,” she said. “We’d sit next to each other, giggle and laugh all the time.”
BYINGTON’S TWO SIDES
Community and education are two words synonymous with Byington. He served as president of the Nevada Association of School Administrators and was chairman of the Morrill Hall restoration drive at UNR. He was voted the “Outstanding Alumnus” award and was elected president of the University of Nevada Alumni Association. Byington spent one term as a 5th Ward councilman for the city of Sparks from 1967-1971.
Byington, though, made his mark as an athlete, both at the high school and university level. He boxed as a welterweight for the Wolf Pack and legendary coach Jimmy Olivas and didn’t lose a match in four seasons. He was inducted into the University of Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame as a boxer in 1978.
Throughout his distinguished career, Byington shaped both soldiers and students.
John Lundemo, who taught for 23 years in Washoe County School District, worked as a substitute teacher for Byington at O’Brien Middle School before he received a call in October 1979 to teach fulltime. Along with the other teachers, Lundemo saw two sides to his first principal.
“He was strict and tough and resolved on many ways in how he managed and ran a school,” Lundemo said. “Some might say it was a no-nonsense approach. But he was an extremely good listener and his door was always open.”
As a teacher, Lundemo said he felt comfortable questioning things and speaking his mind, but he learned to pay attention to memos, rules and regulations and details … something a military officer would enforce.
“And yet Doug knew how to be flexible when the situation needed it,” Lundemo said. “And his second side was a deep love of students and responsibility for their learning. He was an educator who understood the many shifts and changes and pressures on public schools. He instilled in me the necessity of responsibility and accountability for my actions and for my students and classroom teaching.”
Byington’s adaptability as a general showed as an educator and how he perceived better methods to teach students. Byington taught science, math, world history and social studies as a junior high school teacher, yet his background gave him an edge over other educators.
“I grew up on ranches and was driving trucks,” he recalled. “We need to have more vocation education.”
Byington said not every student attends college.
Lundemo said Byington wanted his faculty to teach all subjects and also focus on student development. As a result, Lundemo and the other teachers imparted their experiences on life, society and citizenship and how to relate and communicate with each other.
“This was important to Doug and he emphasized it frequently,” Lundemo said.
Over the years, Lundemo said Byington changed and allowed for more team teaching.
Lundemo, who taught at O’Brien from 1979 to 1984, grew up in the old mining town of Tonopah, from where he also graduated high school. A three-sport letterman, Lundemo played for Jerry Tobin, a former football player and boxer for the University of Nevada. Lundemo once met another boxer, Mills Lane, who was familiar with Byington’s career in the ring.
“That connection made a lot of sense to me,” Lundemo said, reminiscing at his own career and perhaps thinking how Byington looked at others trying to help themselves . “Doug looked to those of us who had come up from the small schools and small towns, and were tough in the way that we worked hard for everything we achieved. He admired that and related that to me in his own way.”