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Remembering an avid pilot, devoted teacher, dedicated family man

Thursday, June 14, 2012 | 8:05 p.m. CDT; updated 10:49 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 14, 2012

COLUMBIA — William H. "Slim" Somerville, avid pilot, honored veteran and devoted family man, left behind a legacy of great achievement, great humility and a deep affection for his friends and family.

Mr. Somerville lived in Arlington, Va., and died Monday, April 23, 2012. He was 85.

Mr. Somerville was born Jan. 26, 1927, to John and Edna (Doll) Somerville. He grew up in the small town of Jameson with one brother and one sister. In 1944 he graduated as valedictorian of his class and became the first person from Jameson to attend college.

He attended MU for a year, where he met Helen McClymond, then a student at Stephens College. After enlisting in the Navy, he received an acceptance letter to the United States Naval Academy, and left for Annapolis, Md., in 1945.

In 1949, after graduating from the Academy, he and McClymond married.

"And he didn't dare get married before that," said Helen (McClymond) Somerville, wife of 62 years.

"He was a really nice-looking man. Not enough to stir up a female to say he was 'adorable,' but a really nice-looking man," Helen Somerville said. "And really on-target and really humble."

Mr. Somerville had a 30-year career in the Navy. While in the Navy, he met lifelong friend Fred Baur and earned the nickname "Slim," after the comedy actor Slim Summerville. During training, Baur and Mr. Somerville were regular co-pilots.

"Slim had a very low-key personality," Baur said. "He was completely under control of himself. Very sharp, very intelligent, and really witty."

When they graduated from flight school, the Korean War was well under way. Baur and Mr. Somerville moved to their stations in Alaska, flying alternating rotations into North Korea to deploy troops and drop flares along patrol lines.

"We lit up the battlefield, so the American forces could fight," Baur said.

Mr. Somerville remained a pilot well after the Korean War, flying transport and attack planes, as well as serving on the world's first global circumnavigation by a nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise.

By the time Mr. Somerville had settled on the East Coast with his wife and children, Baur had done the same. The two remained lifelong friends, often flying with their wives across the country on extended double dates to places such as New Orleans and the annual Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.

Through it all, Baur said Mr. and Mrs. Somerville remained utterly connected, enamored by their personality differences.

"It was like he was the introvert, and she was the extrovert," Baur said. "He and Helen were a good match."

Mrs. Somerville was active in civil rights, particularly in the women's movement in the 1950s and '60s, which Mr. Somerville supported entirely.

"She just did her own thing, and he loved her for it," said Audrey Moon, Mr. Somerville's granddaughter. "He just really respected her as a woman and a person."

Ever an avid pilot, Mr. Somerville thought it important that his wife learn to land a plane, but she caught the bug herself and, under his instruction, became a licensed pilot. Mrs. Somerville said it was a point of pride for Mr. Somerville that she could achieve such independence.

"He was certainly qualified to teach anybody to fly," Mrs. Somerville said. "He was always wide open to people who needed help. Even kids who needed help on homework."

After fully retiring as a cost analyst for various defense contractors, Mr. Somerville devoted the last 20 years of his life to teaching. His retirement job as a substitute teacher began in his 60s when he responded to an advertisement for a math tutor.

"Just for the heck of it," as his daughter, Susan Moon, put it. "I think he was bored."

Possessed with an understanding of math and an ability to connect with students, his reputation spread to the local school system, where he was recommended to fill long-term substitute teaching positions. Mr. Somerville continued to teach summer classes in mathematics into his early 80s.

"He had this way of being able to clear out the cobwebs and make it all make sense," Susan Moon said. "He was just very patient and sequenced in his teaching."

For 25 years Mr. Somerville also volunteered as a certified museum guide for the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, while Mrs. Somerville did the same for the National Air and Space Museum. Mr. Somerville's children and grandchildren all recall long afternoons in the museums, meandering with him between exhibits.

"I remember walking away feeling like I had had an amazing education about aircraft," Susan Moon said. "But it wasn't lecturing. He just did it in a way that came alive."

In spite of his amicability, many of Mr. Somerville's closest friends and relatives believe it was his humility that defined him, along with a deep affection for his family and friends.

"I never heard him — I don't believe, ever — brag," Mrs. Somerville said. "He was just such a gentleman, and incredibly funny."

Mr. Somerville is survived by his wife, Helen, and his sister, Barbara Foley; his three children, Sydney Brandt, Susan Moon and William Somerville Jr.; and his six grandchildren, Zander, Kate, Audrey, Maggie, Neal and Nell.

Mr. Somerville will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery on July 26 and honored with a flyover. Military services will be held at 9 a.m. at The Old Post Chapel, 204 Lee Ave., Building #335, Fort Myer, Va. 22211.

Instead of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Honor Flight Network, at honorflight.org, in honor of William "Slim" Somerville. Donations can be mailed to Honor Flight Inc., Attn: Diane Gresse, 300 E. Auburn Ave., Springfield, OH 45505.

Supervising editor is Dan Burley.


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