A Cherished Tradition

Silver TapsA recent post on Twitter announcing the first Silver Taps ceremony of the semester at Texas A&M University brought back vivid memories of my first exposure to this cherished tradition. It was fifty years ago and I can still recall every detail of that night.

I was a freshman in the Corps of Cadets at the time just learning what it means to be an Aggie. I was frankly overwhelmed by the solemnity of fellow students gathering in silence to honor and remember other Aggies who had passed away the previous month. It impressed upon me that I was a part of something enduring, a spirit of fellowship and family that would last a lifetime.

A&M alumni reading this will understand exactly what I’m talking about. Others, those of you who read my posts but have no reference to go by, may appreciate a brief summary of the event.

On the morning of the ceremony the names of the dead are posted at the base of the flagpole outside the Academic building. The flag is then flown at half-mast throughout the day, and at 10:15 PM the lights on campus are extinguished. It is eerily dark and quiet. The firing squad from an elite unit known as the Ross Volunteers marches into position. They fire a 21-gun salute at 10:30 PM – the discharge of the guns is accompanied by the collective intake of breath throughout the student body as the sound of the guns pierces the silence. Six buglers atop the dome of the Academic building sound the mournful notes of a special orchestration of taps that has been passed down from bugler to bugler since 1898. These are the only sounds you hear. Taps is played three times; once to the North, once to the South, and once to the West. It is never played toward the East… the sun will never rise again on the departed. When the last note has been played no words are spoken. The students disperse returning to their dorms, apartments or homes to remember, to reflect, and to pray. – Excerpt from my memoir, Silver Taps.


The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch: Lone Star Book Blog Tours Promo & Review

foreword by Bill Hobby
Genre: Memoir / Texana / Politics / Eastern European History
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
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Date of Publication: April 16, 2018
Number of Pages: 336 pages w/50 B&W photos
As a boy in Houston, Bill Sarpalius, his brothers, and their mother lived an itinerant life. Bill dug food out of trashcans, and he and his brothers moved from one school to the next. They squatted in a vacant home while their mother, affectionately called “Honey,” battled alcoholism and suicidal tendencies. In an act of desperation, she handed her three sons over to Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch north of Amarillo.

At the time, Bill was thirteen years old and could not read. Life at Boys Ranch had its own set of harrowing challenges, however. He found himself living in fear of some staff and older boys. He became involved in Future Farmers of America and discovered a talent for public speaking. When he graduated, he had a hundred dollars and no place to go. He worked hard, earned a scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and obtained a college degree. After a brief career as a teacher and in agribusiness, he won a seat in the Texas Senate. Driven by the memory of his suffering mother, he launched the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in an effort to help people struggling with addiction.

Sarpalius later served in the United States Congress. As a Lithuanian American, he took a special interest in that nation’s fight for independence from the Soviet Union. For his efforts, Sarpalius received the highest honor possible to a non-Lithuanian citizen and was named a “Grand Duke.”The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is a unique political memoir—the story of a life full of unlikely paths that is at once heartbreaking and inspirational.


“The autobiography of Bill Sarpalius reads like a 20 -century version of the American dream – equal parts heartbreak and inspiration, culminating in an unlikely political career capped by three terms in the U.S. Congress.” — University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs
“The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is an inspiring tale of perseverance and personal courage.” — Si Dunn, Lone Star Literary Life



Texas A&M University Press


Former Congressman Bill Sarpalius’ memoir, The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch, chronicles a remarkable life that progresses from an illiterate child whose father abandoned him and whose mother battled depression, alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies, to Future Farmers of America President, to a brief career in agribusiness and teaching, to a position in the Texas Legislature, and ultimately to the U.S. Congress. It is at once compelling and inspirational, and should appeal to readers looking to overcome obstacles and accomplish their own dreams.

Each of the aforementioned touchstone events in Bill Sarpalius’ book is presented in one of five parts that correspond to the turning points in his life. Of these, the one that put him on the road to public service and convinced him that “God had a plan for him to help people” is Part I: Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch.

“It was at Boys Ranch where I learned how to dream and make those dreams come true.”

As a resident of Texas, I was certainly aware of the facility in West Texas. Each year about Christmas time I receive a mailing soliciting funding to support the ranch’s operational needs. However, I was unaware of the magnitude of its mission; one of the largest child care homes in the state, it has raised and educated thousands of boys who either had no family or whose families couldn’t provide for them, or who had committed violent crimes. I was also unfamiliar with the man responsible, Cal Farley, whose faith and compassion wouldn’t allow him to ever say “no to a boy in trouble.”

Of course, when Bill Sarpalius’ mother dropped him and his two brothers off at the Boys Ranch in 1960 in an act of desperation, it was at a time when childcare facilities in Texas were unregulated, licensed, or inspected (the Texas Child Care and Licensing Act wasn’t passed until 1975.) The volatile mix of boys and staff sometimes resulted in abuse, and Mr. Sarpalius candidly discusses corporal punishment, sexual assault, and the initial struggle to survive.

It is a testament to his character and determination that when he finally emerges from Boys Ranch he leaves with an education, self-confidence, profound faith, a work ethic, and lasting friendships. In fact he will attribute his time there as the reason for his later success.

“Everything I had ever accomplished, I owe to Cal Farley and his Boys Ranch.”

 The remaining four parts to the book were less compelling for me. The memories of his rise to political prominence and his accomplishments in office just didn’t resonate with me for reasons that I think had more to do with writing style than story. In many instances his stream of consciousness results in random thoughts and reflections that don’t seem to fit into the context or chronology of the situations being described. And, because the focus of any memoir is the author, all events, reactions, opinions, thoughts, feelings, and outcomes are filtered through that one viewpoint. There is always the danger that they may come across as less than objective, which is especially true in today’s political climate. The “I/me” perspective employed by Mr. Sarpalius definitely invites reader intimacy, but it also runs the risk of appearing self-aggrandizing.

Though not for everyone, The Grand Duke from Boys Ranch is a unique political memoir that many readers will enjoy.

I received a free copy of the book from Texas A&M University Press & the Texas Book Consortium in exchange for my honest opinion.

BILL SARPALIUS represented the Texas 13th Congressional District from 1989 to 1995, and from 1981 to 1989 he served in the Texas State Senate. He currently is a motivational speaker and serves as CEO of Advantage Associates International. He divides his time between Maryland and Houston, Texas.
2:00 PM
2415 Soncy Road
Amarillo, TX 79124


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Cognitive Hope

Completed Book CoverAlmost 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form. My father succumbed to its insidious progression. He passed away July 31, 2006.

Following his death I wrote my book Silver Taps, an attempt to come to grips with his passing and a  reflection on our relationship and the disease. It’s important to recognize that Alzheimer’s affects not only the individual but family members and friends who provide support and also struggle to understand and cope with the loss of a loved one’s cognition (see my previous post Sixth Leading Cause of Death,  dated March 15, 2017.)

As of today there is no cure for the disease, and the number of cases is expected to triple by 2050. Drug trials have shown promise in the past, but up until recently that promise has failed to materialize. The individual affected by the loss of memory knows what is happening but is unable to do anything about it, while caretakers are also faced with the certainty that in spite of their efforts the individual will eventually be unable to do anything on their own and may even forget even their closest relations. Multiple health related complications are common and they almost always result in death.

However, a new discovery provides hope. The drug is not FDA approved and much more testing is required, however, the Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment is encouraged by the initial study. 856 patients from the United States, Europe and Japan were involved in the clinical trial.

For the first time a drug has shown the ability to clear plaque from the brain and actually improve cognition. This is a potential milestone in the efforts to eventually find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Having experienced the pain of loss of someone who was a pillar of strength within my family before the onset of this disease, I continue to advocate for continued research leading to a cure. “Hope,” in this instance, is the expectation of success in finding a remedy that will impact anyone affected by Alzheimer’s. I can’t change my experience, but I continue to hold onto that hope and encourage others experiencing similar circumstances to be optimistic.