Rest in peace Uncle Harold, AKA I.O. #1

J. H. Osborne • Sep 22, 2019 at 7:00 PM

Mom and I got sad news Thursday morning. My uncle, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Harold S. Osborne, 85, died. Uncle Harold, my father’s younger sibling, was the last living of four brothers — and my last uncle. I had 11 growing up and lost the first when I was 19. I wouldn’t single out any as my “favorite.” They all had something special. I was closer to some than others. For a time, from my mid teens through my twenties, Uncle Harold and I were especially close. I think now that might have been because no matter his age, he never forgot the joys of youth.

That’s not to say he wasn’t serious. He succeeded first in a military career, followed by years as a college professor. But he always had an appreciation for good food, fine spirits, and the performing arts. Like my father, he could make any day an adventure and found great pleasure in playing host or tour guide. He celebrated his faith in God throughout his life. Before departing Kingsport for college, Harold was among the first congregants at Mafair United Methodist Church. When I joined First Broad, he was a little disappointed, even though he had since joined the Episcopal Church in D.C. where for many years he sang in the choir.

Let me back up for some basics. Harold Sidney Osborne was born January 20, 1934 at Blackwater, Lee County, Virginia, to Mr. and Mrs. John H. Osborne (Maude Ward). He had three older brothers, Paul, Elmer Ray, and John Jr. A few years later the family moved to Kingsport and Harold grew up in what he always referred to as “my Kingsport.” He meant the 1940s and early 1950s. He remembered the Kingsport Inn and other long-gone treasures I never saw (except in picture books). He excelled at piano — the living room of his adulthood home in suburban D.C. would be dominated by a grand piano. A family legend has my grandfather arriving home one day to be met on the porch by an exiting piano tuner as child Harold sat nearby on the steps. “Got it tuned real good,” the man said, passing grandfather a bill. “Who called for a piano tuner?” Grandfather asked. “Me,” said Harold. Grandfather promptly handed the bill to Harold, and went inside. I never got a clear answer on who paid the bill.

He loved Dobyns-Bennett High School, got his diploma in 1952 and headed to ETSU, living on campus (and driving Dad’s new Dodge coupe while Dad was in Korea). He became a member of the first class to complete four years in the university’s ROTC program. Harold was probably most proud of the role he played in establishing the Iota Omicron chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity at ETSU. As the first to sign the chapter’s original charter he earned the lifelong designation “I.O. #1” for hundreds of young men who would join the chapter over the next 50-plus years. After earning his B.S. in 1956, Harold pursued graduate work at the University of Florida before entering active duty in the U.S. Army. His early years of service included assignment to NATO headquarters in Paris and work at the American Hospital there.

By the early 1960s he settled in Washington, D.C., where Walter Reed Army Medical Center Hospital became his home posting.

My earliest memories of Uncle Harold include gifts in boxes from Lord & Taylor, Woodward & Lothrop, or Garfinkel’s — and the French mints and torrone (Italian nougat and nut) candies he’d send my grandmother. My next distinct memory is Mom, Dad and I visiting him and his family in the summer of 1976, the nation’s bicentennial. On that visit he convinced me to like spicy brown mustard, and to at least appreciate “spoon bread.”

Jump ahead to 1982. Uncle Harold drove down in his big land-yacht of a car and I got to play tour guide at the World’s Fair in Knoxville.

By 1984, the best of times together began to blossom. I spent that summer traveling across Europe (21 countries in 75 days) and when I touched down back in the good old U.S.A. I landed at Washington National Airport. Uncle Harold picked me up (he’d downsized to a sporty convertible) and asked what I wanted for dinner. I said steak and a baked potato. He took me to Tom Sarris Orleans House in Rosslyn — known for prime rib and a huge salad bar. I spent about a week with Uncle Harold, I think, and another impressive outing was attending a reception of some sort at Walter Reed. I embarrassed him, I think, with my inability to stop eating the little finger sandwiches made from plain old white bread, American cheese, and mayonnaise. Man, that tasted like home after more than two months overseas.

Throughout the rest of the 80s, I frequently visited D.C. and Uncle Harold always rolled out the red carpet. He treated me to some of the best dining experiences I’ve had and always knew which hangout in Georgetown was on its way up or way down. There were live performances at the Kennedy Center and concerts on the National Mall. Sunday brunch was a must. His favorite place was in Georgetown and had a French name that I believe translated as “Fruit of the Sea.” A lot of places we went, he was greeted on arrival by patrons and staff as “Hal,” a nickname I didn’t know until that 1984 visit. Always, everyone, everywhere was happy to see him. His hospitality extended beyond me. When a friend and I needed a place to stay during George H.W. Bush’s inaugural, he put us up. When Dad and I showed up about 6 a.m. one morning, unexpectedly, he prepared breakfast while we freshened up. (Dad’s and my escapade is a whole other column). When another friend moved to D.C. for a new job, Uncle Harold made him welcome until he found an apartment of his own. More than one Lambda Chi Alpha brother has experienced the same hospitality.

Uncle Harold had been ill for quite some time. I last spoke with him in early summer. But he and Mom talked as regularly as possible over the past few years. She will miss him a lot. But we are comforted by the thought of the reunion going on now in heaven. No immediate public service is planned. Pending probable burial at Arlington, his remains will be placed in a columbarium at National Cathedral. His children and grandchildren are planning a celebration of Harold’s life at a future date.


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