An inspiring person

I read May 27 that the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial added the name of B.T. Collins and two others – Pfc. Richard Carmine Borelli of Sierra Madre in Los Angeles County and Ensign Jan Bryan Jones of Ione.

I was surprised to see Collins’ name was only recently added and would be honored on the day before Memorial Day as the current list of 5,657 names are read aloud at the memorial near the Capitol building.

Collins, an Army captain in Vietnam, lost a leg and arm in combat. He served as chief of staff for Gov. Jerry Brown during Brown’s first administration. Collins was famous for drinking Malathion during the brouhaha over spraying to eliminate the fruit fly invasion.

He later was appointed as director of the California Conservation Corps and California Youth Authority.

He was elected as a Republican assemblyman representing Sacramento’s 5th District from 1991-93. He died of a heart attack in 1993.

B.T. Collins was absolutely the most dynamic, most inspiring person I met.

In 1988 I began an editorial campaign to raise money in El Dorado County for the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I called it Challenge ’88. We raised $10,000.

It was an extension of a special edition I put together in 1985 in honor of the 10 anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Nearly two-dozen Vietnam vets told me and other writers riveting stories. Then I invited them all to show up for a group photo by the Beer Tree on the fairgrounds, with the Mother Lode Lions Club barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers donated by local grocers. That group photo was our cover shot.

The real tipping point in the campaign was a “Recognition Dinner — ‘Because it’s time’” at the Veterans Memorial Hall on Placerville Drive. The March 24 dinner, cooked by the local veterans organizations was a huge success because B.T. Collins was the keynote speaker.

I have to mention the ad hoc committee that helped me make it happen: Carl Borelli, Bob Laurie, Jim Webb, Bill Hill, John Cefalu and Todd Dierdorff. All were veterans.

The Veterans Hall was packed to the rafters, or so it seemed to me from the head table. Collins was the most inspirational speaker I have ever heard. You could hear a pin drop as he began to speak. Nobody coughed, but many eyes became moist.

It was an emotional speech whose conclusion ended in thunderous applause as everyone stood for an uncommon American hero.

He signed my copy of the dinner program: “Mike — You’re a prince! Thanks on behalf of the 5,822! (Californians who died in Vietnam) B.T. ’88.”

It seemed almost anticlimactic on April 6 when I brought Channel 3 newscaster Stan Atkinson to a South Lake Tahoe Rotary dinner. Atkinson had recently visited Vietnam with Green Beret Capt. B.T. Collins in 1987 and produced a documentary about it. They were the first Americans to visit the country since the war ended in 1975. Atkinson showed his video to the Rotarians. I arranged for a twin-engine airplane to fly Stan Atkinson to Tahoe and back and a limousine to bring him to Harrah’s banquet room. The airplane was to make sure he got back in time for the 11 p.m. newscast.

Stan, of course, was as personable in person as he was on TV. He had 45 years of broadcasting when he retired in 1999, with 20 of those years in Sacramento. He covered 18 countries on 31 assignments, including Afghanistan twice during the Russian occupation, once being chased down by a Soviet helicopter.

Atkinson signed my dinner program, “Thanks so much for helping this count for something.” Atkinson, besides going on risky foreign assignments, also participated in a number of community fund-raising projects.

He and Collins became the principal fundraisers for the $2.2 million California Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I was honored to have met both of them as they helped El Dorado County raise $10,000 on behalf of the 28 from El Dorado County who died in the Vietnam War. Their names are on the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento. It’s a well designed state memorial.

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