A Hero's Tribute

by Sheldon Jackson, Ph.D.

On an unsuspecting Saturday in November, an airplane traveled east from China to the United States. On board, the passengers collected their complimentary soft drinks, directed their attention to the in-flight movie, and settled in for the long trip across the Pacific. The aircraft soared over Tokyo Bay, and giving a nod to history, God called home a faithful son, one who had served his country and his God in that area nearly 60 years before. Azusa Pacific University longtime friend and benefactor Ward Munson died of heart failure on November 16, 2002, while flying home from an eight-day goodwill tour of China with business and community leaders.

He left behind friends, family, and a touching legacy of discipleship. Munson was born in Wolverine, Michigan, June 12, 1910. In 1915, the family moved to California, drawn to the ambiance and citrus groves of Azusa, which at the time, had a population of 1,500. There, Munson worked alongside his father in dairying and carpenter work and attended local schools. At the beginning of the Depression, Munson determined to get a college education. He hitchhiked to Northern California, enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley, and worked his way through school, receiving his degree in 1932. In 1936, Munson went to work for Proctor and Gamble as a sales representative, becoming a sales supervisor in short order.

On February 22, 1940, Munson married Alice Kelly. Their marriage was blessed with three children: son, Kelley, and daughters, Colleen and Rosemary. Munson’s plans for the future were changed when, on his way home to dinner, his car radio carried the voice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “At 7 o’clock this morning . . . Japanese bombers bombed Pearl Harbor.” Soon, the United States was involved in a two-front war. Within a year, Munson enlisted in the navy.

He was assigned to the staff of Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor, where he served for a year before being assigned as communications officer to the USS Missouri, the flagship of the Pacific Fleet. After three years of heavy fighting, the Japanese signaled a readiness to surrender. The USS Missouri moved into Tokyo Bay to provide the site for an historic September 2, 1945 surrender ceremony. Admiral Nimitz ordered Lieutenant Munson to prepare a chart showing where each notable was to stand.

At the appointed hour, the Japanese delegation appeared, and Munson placed Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and the Japanese delegation in their proper positions four feet from the peace treaty table. Then, on the front side of the table, he placed Admiral Nimitz on the far right, then MacArthur, then he lined the remaining officers shoulder to shoulder – officials representing Australia, Canada, China, France, Great Britain, Holland, New Zealand, and Russia. After the Japanese delegation was signed, MacArthur stepped forward and picked up the pen. In a touching ceremony, he called General Jonathan Wainwright, who had surrendered Corregidor, and British General Arthur Percival, who had surrendered Singapore – both of them emaciated from three years in Japanese prisoner of war camps – forward. He first handed a pen to Wainright, then another to Percival, both of whom signed for the Allies. Munson noted moist eyes among those who witnessed the signing that day.

Returning to Azusa after the war, the young war veteran began Munson Sporting Goods Company, working out of his garage, and investing his total savings of $3,000. Despite intense competition, the business thrived under Munson’s expert management. When he sold the firm in 1981, it had become a multimillion-dollar company – a leading wholesale distributor of fishing, hunting, camping, marine, and athletic equipment in 11 western states, operating out of distribution centers in Costa Mesa and Fife, Washington. Its 50 sales representatives served 3,000 dealers and offered 16,000 items in inventory. The Small Business Administration named Munson Businessman of the Year in 1973 and 1974, while the National Council for Small Business Management Development selected him as Outstanding Businessman in the Western States. After selling his business, Munson gave away half of his wealth, devoting his attention chiefly to philanthropy. His widespread benevolence included a major gift to Azusa Pacific University for a much needed chapel.

At the dedication on September 5, 1990, the speaker explained: “Munson Chapel will be the site of worship services, weddings, theatrical productions, and various music performances, including recitals by students and faculty members and other performing groups.” Munson was a special friend of Azusa Pacific University. He served two terms on the Board of Trustees: 1988-95 and 1996-2001. He was especially interested in the students and even chaired the Student Life Committee. One time, upon invitation of the students, he spent the night in one of the burgeoning residence halls, in a sleeping bag on the floor. His experience led to his ardent speech at the next board meeting, challenging the school to build another dormitory to relieve crowded conditions. He completed his speech with a generous on-the-spot donation. The result: Engstrom Hall, opened in 1994.

Munson built many “bridges” for the students of Azusa Pacific University, and in thanks, the Associated Student Body awarded him the first-ever Ward Munson Trustee of the Year Award for his pivotal stewardship. He exemplified leadership and generosity that impacted not only students, but through them, the world. This spirit and devotion made him an integral part of the Azusa Pacific family. He is survived by his second wife, Sandy, and two daughters.

Sheldon Jackson, Ph.D. is professor emeritus in the Department of History and Political Science and a university historian.