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Celebrating our grandfather and the 72nd birthday of the GI Bill

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As proud grandchildren, my siblings and I were honored to build a memorial for our grandfather —Ernest W. McFarland—at the Arizona Capitol, where he served as 10th Arizona governor.

Mac, as almost everyone including our family called him, held unique status in Arizona history, serving not only as governor, but also as a U.S. senator, Senate majority leader and chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. Despite these lofty positions, Mac was a man who was known for his down-to-earth humility and hard work ethic. Our grandfather was always more concerned about helping others and getting things done than he was about getting credit for his accomplishments.

He was the type of man who would have preferred not to have a memorial dedicated to his memory. But this Arizonan’s historic accomplishments inspired not only his family, but numerous other donors to collect the private funds necessary to build this memorial in his honor. My siblings and I hope to not only honor our grandfather, but also all Americans and the opportunities that Mac’s work helped to provide.

Dedicated on Arizona Statehood Day, Feb. 14, 2015, the “Ernest W. McFarland and the American Dream” Memorial is located on the east side of the Wesley Bolin Plaza in Phoenix. This stunning display features an inspiring 24-foot Triumphal Arch that symbolizes the gateway to opportunity for all Americans.

Our grandfather accomplished many admirable things in life. However, his greatest accomplishment came in 1944 when he was serving as a U.S. senator. Millions of Americans found their American Dream through Mac’s tireless work on a piece of legislation called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. This law later became known as the GI Bill, which helped our returning World War II veterans obtain college educations, and home and business loans.

On June 22, Arizonans—and all Americans for that matter—should pause a moment to reflect on the millions of veterans who served their country and benefited from the GI Bill as it turns 72 years old.

Mac drafted the portions of the GI Bill that gave veterans access to education through tuition assistance, zero-down home loans and low interest business loans. The resulting bill allowed World War II vets to come back to a land of opportunity, where higher education, home ownership and business loans were not just entitlements for the privileged, but realistic goals for the common man.

The impact of the GI Bill was staggering. Historian Vincent Murray found that from 1945 until 1956 when the initial program ended, the bill served 15 million servicemen and women. Based on numbers from the U.S. State Department, approximately 7.8 million veterans took advantage of the educational provisions; 2.2 million of the provisions for business and home loans; 2.2 million were able to attend college; 1.5 million OJT (i.e. journeymen, etc.); 3.5 million vocational; and 700,000 farm training. The GI Bill generated 450,000 trained engineers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, 238,000 teachers, and 1 million-plus additional college educated professionals. Also, millions took advantage of the GI Bill’s home loan guaranty. From 1944 to 1952, the VA backed nearly 2.4 million home loans for World War II veterans.

Obtaining an education in the early 20th century was a personal struggle for our grandfather, but he persevered to become a school teacher initially and then a lawyer. Mac believed resolutely in education and he instilled the value of an education on anyone close to him. I remember Mac would ask every young person he saw how they were doing in school.

Taking these education values to the U.S. Senate in the early 1940s, and after seeing firsthand what happened to returning World War I veterans, Mac wanted to make sure World War II veterans did not come home to soup kitchen and unemployment lines. Mac’s idea was to allow vets to go to school and create a better future. All of my family members have been approached by numerous college professors, medical doctors and engineers who have expressed gratitude for the GI Bill that made it possible for them to obtain the education they needed to become professionals. “Without the GI Bill, I would have never become…” is the theme of what they all say.

Today, many scholars believe the GI Bill is the most successful piece of social legislation ever written. Seventy-two years ago, no one could have imagined how Mac’s foresight would end up impacting the nation’s veterans, educational system, and workforce for generations to come. Having a strong social infrastructure makes a great place to live and prosper. Increasing the education level of our nation’s workforce created the foundation for the high quality lifestyle we all enjoy today. A highly educated workforce is good for everyone and a lasting legacy to Mac.

William C. “Bill” Lewis is a grandson of Ernest W. McFarland.

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