David Lauderdale

Zais family is a top-brass band

Melvin Zais was an unlikely veteran when he retired to the Royal Pines neighborhood on Lady's Island.

He was born into a poor family in the textile mill town of Fall River, Mass. His father and mother had come to America as children of immigrants, their Ukrainian name shortened at Ellis Island from something no one remembers.

Melvin's father got only through the sixth grade and his mother the third. They had four boys, and Melvin was the only one to finish high school. His older brothers chipped in for him go on to the University of New Hampshire, where he got some scholarship money to play football, basketball and box. He waited tables in a sorority. And he was in ROTC.

Melvin graduated in 1937, prepared to be a journalist. But first he was committed to a hitch in the U.S. Army. During the buildup to World War II, he volunteered for America's first airborne battalion. By 27, he was a lieutenant colonel. He rose to four-star general and was commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.

The blue-collar Yankee married a Tennessee belle, and they had two boys. Both of them graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Like their father, both were paratroopers in Vietnam. And all three of their sons have been paratroopers in Iraq.

Both of Melvin's boys got doctorates, and the younger one, Mick Zais, made it to two-star general. Last week, Mick Zais was elected South Carolina's state superintendent of education.

Mick Zais said his father never stressed education. He stressed hard work.

It's true that Melvin Zais was mentally and physically tougher than everyone else in his "screaming eagle" world. But he wrote beautifully, and at night he read poetry to his sons. Their mother had been rendered largely an invalid following a brain tumor when Mick was 2. She died when Mick was 20.

Melvin would remarry a military widow, Patricia V. Light. They loved their retirement together in Beaufort County, but for the general it lasted only five years. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Patricia lived many years at The Cypress on Hilton Head Island.

In his will, Melvin Zais wrote: "The Army fanned into flames the smoldering embers of my ambition."

He always said he was lucky, and the harder he worked the luckier he got.

"His story is the American dream," Mick Zais said. "We got where we are by hard work and talent and luck. The more you have of one, the less you need of the others."

On Veterans Day, the state superintendent-elect is scheduled to speak to high school students in Columbia.

Maybe his dad's luck will fan some embers.