John Lewis

Veterans Day brings special memories to John D. Lewis.

His grandfather, Ernest McFarland accomplished many things: Over six decades of public service, he was a U.S. Senator representing Arizona, the 10th governor of Arizona and a state Supreme Court chief justice.

But what the Chandler man cherishes most about his grandfather is what he did for military veterans. MacFarland is considered the father of the GI Bill, which gave 16 million veterans a chance at a college education and a better way of life.

Lewis’ pride in his grandfather’s accomplishments is on display with a stunning monument, titled “Ernest W. McFarland and the American Dream” at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza at the State Capitol complex.

Installed last year after Lewis and his family raised $400,000 to erect it, the memorial “is one of the park’s rare tributes that focuses on optimism for the future rather than on past sacrifices,” said Don Ryden, the architect who designed it. “The physical elements of the memorial symbolize dreams, personal growth, opportunities and service to others.”

The memorial features 22 panels highlighting McFarland’s service. He is represented on a metal plaque as a workhorse, accomplishing tasks like securing water for the arid state, symbolized by an adjacent well.

Literally born in a log cabin in Oklahoma, MacFarland overcame a hardscrabble adolescence, illness and personal tragedy to become one of Arizona’s most accomplished historical figures.

He joined the Navy during World War I and almost died of pneumonia  contracted at the Great Lakes Naval School near Chicago. His post-war struggles without veterans’ benefits left an indelible impression on him.

He and his wife lost several infant children to illness and she later died in 1930 of post-birth complications from their stillborn third child.

After his family’s death, McFarland returned to practicing law and then returned to politics in 1934 when he was elected a judge in Pinal County. He remarried and in 1940 was elected to the U.S. Senate.

He became the father of the GI bill in 1944, but lost his Senate seat to Barry Goldwater in 1953. The next year, he was elected governor.

Lewis said he knew his grandfather “as long as I can remember.”

“He was an active grandfather and family man before I was ever born. I knew Mac from the days I was an infant, to his death in 1984,” he added.

He described him as “caring, loving and giving good advice about our future: Work hard, do well in school, save your money… don’t waste it foolishly.  Mac modeled and taught us good Christian morals, of what was important in life, encouraged us to do what was right and showed us how to think of and care for others,” Lewis said.

“One season he loaned 40 acres of his farm to my older brother and I so we could grow cotton. This was a great experience that I will never forget, as it taught me the basics of cotton farming. He would include us in business meetings,” he continued, noting when he was 16, his grandfather included him in a meeting with bank investment specialists.

After nearly dying while he was in the service, MacFarland got an honorable discharge.

Lewis said MacFarland was moved by the plight of servicemen returning from war because he “had absolutely nothing in his younger years.”

“Mac always believed that education would make the difference in giving a person a better life.  Mac’s educational programs that he got put into the GI Bill not only boosted the lives of millions of American veterans, it also boosted our country’s entire educational system and the quality of life for millions more in the next generations to come,” Lewis said, adding:

“If these veterans could not find work, Mac wanted them to have a chance to better themselves by going to school. This GI bill also made business and home loans available to WWII veterans as well. The WWII GI Bill is referred to by most historians as the most successful social program our nation has ever had.”

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