The Liberty Gazette
July 31, 2018Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: I loved my first lunchbox. Sally Field as The Flying Nun was all over it. In the cafeteria, I would be absorbed by the square metal pail, dreaming of flying. It didn’t matter whether I was downing a PBJ, the best kids’ lunch ever, or the horrid pimento cheese sandwich Mom sometimes fixed in spite of our protests. How I wanted to fly.
Ms. Field’s acting did much to invite me to that different world. She encouraged my imagination and wonder at the possibilities. But she would not have had a part to play had it not been for Marie Teresa Rios Versace, an Irish-Puerto Rican-American born in Brooklyn in 1917.
“Tere,” as her friends called her, met the dashing “Mr. Right,” Humbert Roque Versace, a West Point grad who eventually made Colonel. She became an army wife and bore five children.
Tere had been a prolific writer since her youth. As an adult, she was in high demand to write for publications around the world, including the Armed Forces’ Stars & Stripes. She taught creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and at some point in all the moves army families make, she was crowned “Wisconsin Writer of the Year.”
During the Second World War, the strong, patriotic Catholic supported the troops, volunteering as a truck and bus driver for the army. And it didn’t stop there. She learned to fly and joined the Civil Air Patrol, serving her country as a volunteer pilot.
Tere’s eldest son, the incredibly handsome Humbert Roque (Jr.), or “Rocky,” as they called him, followed in his father’s footsteps to West Point. He went to Korea as an M-48 tank platoon leader and then volunteered for duty in Vietnam. When Captain Versace began his second tour in Vietnam, his post-service vision was to go to seminary, become a priest and return to Vietnam as a missionary. Vietnamese orphans had touched his heart and he wanted to come back to serve them.
In the fall of 1965, less than two weeks before he was to come home, Captain Versace was ambushed, taken deep into the jungle, tortured for two years, then executed. Fellow prisoners last heard his voice singing “God Bless America.” His remains have never been found.
The Colonel and Mrs. Versace didn’t know right away their son had been killed. As Tere was finishing her third book, The Fifteenth Pelican, she penned the dedication, “FOR THE ROCK and the children and sugar people of NamCan.”
The Fifteenth Pelican was Tere’s last book. It was the story that was the basis for the TV show, The Flying Nun.
Tere had been presented with a Special Forces patch and unit membership certificate. When she passed away in 1999, representatives of the Special Operations Command from Fort Bragg were present. Her ashes are buried with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.
My lunchbox was something to be proud of. More than either Sally Field or I knew.