From one CRB to another…rest easy my friend
Published 4:32 pm Tuesday, May 10, 2022
I’m of strong belief that God purposely places individuals in our lives to help show us and keep us on the right path.
Sure, our parents do (or did) that, and there are other family members that do (or did) the same, but isn’t that the purpose of blood relatives….to care for and help guide us along life’s journey?
Whether or not we were wise enough to see it, we’ve all had individuals, other than family members, that served as our mentors. They could be friends, a pastor, a school teacher, or a colleague or boss at work. They see us for who we are and use that as a starting point in helping to shape and guide our lives.
I lost one of my life’s mentors on the first day of May when Carl Russell Britt passed away at Wake Medical Center in Raleigh. He was 95 years old.
Just like my dad, Carl Russell was a Northampton County farm boy that enlisted in the United States Army, trained at Camp Blanding, Florida, and served as infantrymen during World War II.
Just like my dad, Carl Russell fought to liberate France, Central Europe, and the Rhineland.
And, just like my dad, he came home to begin a family and launch a career.
Carl Russell Britt was an educator. He initially taught school in Colerain before serving at Woodland-Olney High School. When the students of that high school moved to the newly consolidated Northampton County High School at Creeksville in the mid 1960’s, Carl Russell made the transition as well, becoming the Assistant Principal while also teaching History.
When I arrived at NCHS as a freshman in 1967, Carl Russell was there. One year later, he was my Driver’s Education instructor. I was so short at that time that he made me sit on a Pepsi crate so I could see over the steering wheel.
With his country charm and great demeanor, Carl Russell was well-liked and respected by the students and staff at Northampton High.
By the time my senior year rolled around, I had developed a pretty strong bond with Carl Russell. He would offer educational and life guidance. He was someone you could confide in and the information shared would remain private.
He also had a great sense of humor. Because he and I shared the same initials (CRB) and because of the fact that he would sign permission slips from home (for late arriving students or those who had to leave school earlier than usual) with his initials, I thought it was cool to use that to my advantage.
I would forge a note from my dad so I could leave school early from time to time. I would then sign CRB at the bottom of that note to show the school secretary that Carl Russell had approved it.
On one occasion, just as I was handing that note to the secretary and showing her that he had approved my early departure, Carl Russell happened to come out of his office at which time he questioned the note, saying he didn’t recall signing it. I thought for sure that I was going to be disciplined for forgery, but he just smiled and spoke about us having the same initials and sent me on my way.
Later my senior year when I was trying to decide which college to attend, it was Carl Russell Britt who was the first to suggest Chowan College and their Graphic Arts (printing) program. Well, now with nearly 50 years under my belt in the printing/publishing industry, I can say his advice turned out quite well for me.
Even after I graduated from high school, our paths would still cross. Through my position here at the newspaper, we would interact while he was serving as the Headmaster at Northeast Academy or during his work in agriculture.
In the winter of 2014, Carl Russell was among several local World War II veterans to be awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, a medal signifying the important role United States servicemen had in the liberation of France during World War II. I interviewed Carl Russell at his home in Milwaukee about that honor.
He showed me the personal letter he received from Francois Delattre, the Ambassador of France to the United States, officially advising Carl Russell of his appointment as a “Chevalier” of the Legion of Honor as bestowed by French President Francois Hollande.
The Legion of Honor is the top award bestowed upon an individual by France. It was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and is divided into five degrees: Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander), Grand Officier (Grand Officer) and Grand Croix (Grand Cross).
He told me that his mother didn’t want him to sign-up for military service, but he felt obliged to do so. At the conclusion of basic training, Carl Russell was shipped overseas to join the now famous Battle of the Bulge, an offensive launched by the Germans in an effort to drive a wedge between the British and American forces in northern France.
“I remember the cold, shivering every night; we were told to keep a watch all the time in our foxhole because the Germans would slip up from the rear and take you out,” he told me during our interview. “Instead of taking turns trying to get in a quick nap, we’d both stay awake, with our backs against each other so we could see what was going on in front of both sides of the foxhole. You did what you had to do to survive.”
With tears filling his eyes, Carl Russell told me about that fateful day when his foxhole buddy, a soldier from North Dakota, was killed during a fierce battle.
“I couldn’t leave him out there; I drug him back to the foxhole,” he recalled. “Then a replacement joined me, his uniform all nice and clean like mine was when I first came to the front [line]. Now I was the old man with the dirty uniform and unshaven. If you were killed or wounded, the medics would pick you up. The rest of us just kept going, kept moving.”
A few months after our interview, I was present at the State Capitol building in Raleigh when the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor medal was pinned on Carl Russell’s suit jacket. What a proud moment that was for both of us. It’s a day I’ll always remember….as will the memory of my longtime mentor and friend.
Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7207.