Who was this man who inspired such loyalty and such acts of bravery? And shouldn’t we study men like this to better understand our history? To better lead our families, our houses of worship, our companies — and our nation?
Like those of so many of our great heroes, his life began humbly. Richard Davis Winters was born in Ephrata, Pa., to Richard and Edith Winters on Jan. 21, 1918. His family’s roots in American history reached back to Timothy Winters, a British immigrant who served in the Revolutionary War and saw action at the Battle of Yorktown.
Defending his country was in Dick Winters’s DNA. Leadership was too.
He moved to nearby Lancaster when he was eight years old, and grew up in what is today known as Amish country. He was exposed to no big-city sophistication, no big ideas of the elites. He was a small-town American boy, raised on small-town values.
Winters graduated from Lancaster Boys High School in 1937 and went off to attend Franklin and Marshall College, where he was a member of a big fraternity on campus and played football and basketball for his chapter. Young Dick Winters had to forgo his favorite sport, wrestling, and a good deal of campus fun to pursue part-time jobs to pay the bills. Somehow, he managed to juggle all of that and graduated with the highest academic standing in 1941.
How about that, folks? A young man who helped pay his way through college by working. The horror! And he survived and thrived.
When the war broke out in Europe, Dick Winters did what millions of young men did — he enlisted in the Army. He was selected to attend Officer Candidate School, earned a commission in the summer of 1942, and then — drawn by the promise of extra pay for hazardous duty — volunteered to join a newly formed paratrooper unit. That’s right: He was drawn to hazardous duty by the promise of extra pay!
Given today’s endless obsession with protecting our kids against all harm — from baby seats to rubber playgrounds, plastic helmets, sanitizing hand soaps, and sanitized curriculums — it’s a wonder we are able to field a military at all. But back in Dick Winters’s day, we prepared men for such exigencies at every turn without even knowing it.
Nearly 500 officers volunteered to join the elite unit of daredevils for which Winters auditioned back in 1941. He was one of 148 who made the cut.
It didn’t take long for his fellow soldiers to figure out that Winters was the man they’d want to follow into battle. “As their leader, you lead the way,” Winters told a reporter a few years before his death. “Not just the easy ones. You gotta take the tough ones too.”