Alexander French: A Biography

Compiled by Steve Kadar, and edited by Alice Smith, from information provided by Al French himself.

picture courtesy of Al’s family

picture courtesy of
Al’s family

Rev. Andrew writes, “I’m told that, some years ago, Al French was once interviewed for a UUFP member biography that was to be run in The Flame.  It appears that the final version of the article may not have been published, however, and so, having remembered and celebrated Al’s life last Sunday, and with his family’s go-ahead, we’re posting it here now.”

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I was born on September 16, 1922 in a hospital on the lower east side of Manhattan.

My mother was acquainted with Margaret Sanger and was a member of her group of activists.  I sometimes speculated on the fact that the first Family Planning clinic was established in New York less than a year after I was born!

When I was about twelve, I got a job as a carpenter’s helper.  By the time I was sixteen I was taking flying lessons.  I graduated from high-school in 1941 and started the aeronautical engineering curriculum at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn that September.  I spent weekends visiting airports that I could get to by subway and bus.  Less than three months later the United States was at war…

picture courtesy of Al’s family

picture courtesy of
Al’s family

I applied for immediate induction into the Army Air Corps ground crew.  About two months later I was in the 133rd Engineer Combat Regiment in Ft. Lewis, Washington.  In Sicily I was in the weapons squad assigned to a machine gun set up for anti-aircraft fire.  What we thought was a German Dornier I recognized as a U.S. DC-3.  When I shouted “DC-3s, American planes, cease fire!” the captain told me to keep shooting or I would face courts martial charged with inciting mutiny and cowardice in the face of the enemy.  It turned out to be the “All American” division, the 82nd Airborne arriving to advance the attack.  I never received a pat on the back, an apology, or any recognition.

In 1949, I received my degree in Civil Engineering and was hired as an engineer trainee by the Bureau of Public Roads.  By the time I retired in 1980, it was the Federal Highway Administration in the Department of Transportation.  During those thirty years I had received a few awards for doing my job and contributing toward the Interstate Highway System.

I met Cynthia square dancing.  On one of our first dates I was intrigued and relieved to discover that Cynthia sometimes attended the Unitarian church where A. Powell Davies delivered his sermons.  The Washington Post often quoted Davies’ statements opposing “McCarthyism”.

picture courtesy of Al’s family

picture courtesy of
Al’s family

Cynthia and I built our first house in Fairfax County.  That was quite an engineering operation.  After retirement I researched family genealogy and the WWII records of our outfit.  I published History of the 40th Engineer Combat Regiment in WWII for the 40th Engineer National Association.  I also tried to establish a 40th Engineer website, which our son helped to get running.

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Rev. Andrew writes, “Here’s one more story that Al himself shared with me.  When Cynthia lived in Washington DC, her apartment was within walking distance of All Souls Church, Unitarian, where at the time the legendary A. Powell Davies was minister.  Cynthia would sometimes attend, and occasionally Al would go with her.  After settling in Annandale, she went to the UU Church of Arlington, later taking their children to Religious Education classes there, too.  Sometimes Al would help with events like yard sales.  After moving here to Newport News, both of them joined the Fellowship, becoming members in 2002, and so Al credits Cynthia with bringing him, at long last, to Unitarian Universalism.”

You can read Al’s obituary as published in the Daily Press here.

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About acmillard

Andrew serves as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, Virginia.
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