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Mike Tharp: The passing of two local heroes

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

We lost John Wayne and James Stewart this past week.

Not the legendary stars of the silver screen, but their Mercedian counterparts.

Dwight Ewing.

Jack McCullough.

Knew 'em. Liked 'em. Respected 'em.

Knew Jack better because his wife Gail was the Realtor who helped me buy my first house ever. During the months-long odyssey of looking for a place to call home, we became friends -- and if you're friends with her, you were friends with her "tough old Irish roommate."

Met Dwight after giving a talk to Rotary last year. Whatever I said, it was enough for him to invite me to lunch.

At the Branding Iron, I found out a little about his remarkable career as an appraiser, almond farmer, horseman and, of course, pilot. When he invited me to fly with him, I said OK, but then lunch is on me. Every time I'd run into him, usually at Save Mart where he wore his usual cowboy hat, boots and belt buckle, he'd boom, "When we goin' flyin', Mike?"

Now we won't get that chance.

Witnesses at the scene where he crash-landed his two-engine Piper on Tuesday midday said he had saved lives by not trying to land on the car-packed highway, instead putting the aircraft down into a leafy verge outside the southbound lane near Childs Avenue.

His son told the Sun-Star that his dad died doing what he loved. His daughter told our colleagues at Channel 30 ABC that they once saw 11 countries in 13 days on one of his "flying vacations." Merced Municipal Airport superintendent Ron Elliott told Channel 30 that Dwight was an "awesome guy."

When I saw his age listed at 88, I couldn't believe it. I'd have taken him for 20 years younger; he showed that much life and energy.

Besides meeting Jack McCullough at their Bear Creek Drive home with Gail, we spent time at the airport last October when Gail took me flying over the county's Westside so I could see the drought devastation on the ground from 1,000 feet up in her Cessna 170.

Jack was quiet, but not shy; droll, but not sarcastic; knew much more than he said. My kind of guy.

He died last Saturday at age 82, after a few months of serious, various medical problems. Gail was there, of course, as were sons John and Patrick. John wrote in an e-mail that his dad didn't want flowers "or any other fuss or expense. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy."

My heart naturally goes out to Gail and her family. She's one of the most remarkable people in our county, and once you meet her, you know she's a force of nature. I just hope she recovers from the loss of her roommate of 55 years and returns to the larger-than-life character she is.

I compared Dwight and Jack to John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart because they reminded me of those two actors in one of the best westerns ever made, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," directed by John Ford in 1962.

Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, a classic tough cowboy who realizes the frontier is fading. Stewart is Ransom Stoddard, a young attorney who believes the West should be tamed with a law book, not a gun.

Two lines from their characters in the film strike me as words that could have been said by Dwight Ewing and Jack McCullough.

Liberty, an infernal bad guy made believable by Lee Marvin, asks, "You lookin' for trouble, Doniphon?" Replies Big Tom: "You aimin' to help me find some?" I can just hear Dwight Ewing say that.

Stoddard opens a school to teach the illiterate, including Tom's partner, a black man, Pompey. He's trying to remember the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that, uh, that ..." He stops. "That all men are created equal," finishes Stoddard. "I knew that, Mr. Rance, but I just plumb forgot it." "That's all right, Pompey. A lot of people forget that part of it."

That would be a line Jack McCullough would say, a sentiment he would share.

So we bid adios to two icons from our community. Their legacies are assured, both in the families and friends they leave behind and their decades of achievement and contributions to our Mercedian community and history.

It's telling that both were pilots. Both liked to slip the surly bonds of Earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings and view our planet and their fellow humans from a higher perspective. Maybe that's one reason they both became icons.

(It's the end of a line in a poem called "High Flight" by John Magee.)

In "Liberty Valance," the most famous line comes from Maxwell Scott, a newspaper editor to whom Stoddard, by now a veteran U.S. senator, has confided a decades-old secret.

"This is the West, sir," the editor says. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Jack and Dwight were two of our legends.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or