“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is – what are you doing for others?”
At 53 years of age, Martin Luther King, Jr. posed that burning question. He ignited a movement of self-examination, unwavering faith, and exemplary compassion – in the midst of crossing lines of religious, cultural, and ethnic differences.
It’s evident that Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to embed the practice of “selfless giving” into America’s fiber. Every so often, we’re fortunate to meet an individual who lives it, beyond any conscious decision to do so. It’s simply and humbly embedded in their fiber as a human being.
After I reached out to invite Bill and Stephanie Hamm onto our co-hosted radio show, Rob Harris and I quickly learned our listeners had more to gain than just celebrating a soccer champion-daughter named Mia Hamm. Although the couple’s roots were diverse: the northeast (Bill) and the southwest (Stephanie), it was clear that their hearts are firmly planted in the south, namely Selma, Alabama.
After graduating in the top 25% of his class at the Air Force Academy, Bill Hamm opted for a training base, which by all appearances wasn’t the cream of the crop. In August of 1966, Lieutenant Hamm arrived for the assignment at Craig Air Force Base, arm-in-arm with his new bride, Stephanie. It was there that Bill had hoped to gain insight about life in the south, especially its history in the civil rights movement. The community of Selma, Alabama would afford him that, and much more.
Rob and I like to think of our radio show as a poolside chat, relaxing with our guests while indulging in life stories about making a difference. And so, we dove into questions about what it was like to live in Selma, as “white folk” during the ‘60s amid misplaced racial divides. Stephanie painted a great scene of herself trying to learn how to fry a chicken. It was cultural artistry at its best, and she didn’t pass the test — at least not initially.
As she shared the process of chicken frying, my mind flashed back to gatherings in rural Hana, Maui, where my husband’s family resides. Burying a pig in an Imu requires more than putting an animal in the ground to slowly roast. The preparation is as important as the cooking process in assessing one’s ability to make Kālua pig. I silently applauded Stephanie’s tenacity for trying, and then learning, to properly fry a chicken. To this day, I have never attempted to slow cook a buried pig!
Both Bill and Stephanie continued on, talking fondly about serving as members of a Parish Council that combined two Catholic churches into one integrated parish. While planting seeds of faith, Stephanie also brought the gift of dance to the African-American children in Selma. Teaching dance was her way of serving the community in its hurting economic status. Listening to their acts of kindness was therapeutic, much like being immersed in a movie about healing divisions in the south.
Bill and Stephanie would again cross lines of understanding religious, cultural and ethnic differences in adopting two boys, both bi-racial (one Anglo-Thai and the other African American-Puerto Rican). Stephanie affectionately referred to the “Hamm soccer squad,” as she introduced listeners to their four girls: Tiffany, Lovdy, Mariel (Mia), and Caroline — all of whom were active participants in the process of adopting their brothers, Garrett and Martin. Before the boys joined the squad, however, the Hamm family was transplanted overseas after the five-year stint in Selma. Bill was chosen to study at a foreign university in Florence Italy, courtesy of an Olmsted Fellowship. Garrett and Martin were adopted upon their return stateside assignment to Wichita Falls, Texas; daughter Caroline was also born there.
Then, Rob approached the question that was undoubtedly on listeners’ minds. “Bill, did you ever think that going to Italy, going to a soccer game, would change the viewpoint of the world about women’s soccer someday?” While I had a previous honor of writing a story for TIME about Mia’s championship lifestyle and military brat history, Rob had just ushered our listeners into a behind the scenes look at Mia’s career via the most reliable source – her parents!
Bill audibly shied away from taking any credit for his daughter’s rise to athletic stardom. Instead, he shared memories of weekend trips to the stadium in Florence to watch La Fiorentina soccer games and unfolded Mia’s love for the sport. There, at the Cascine, a park in Florence, they saw a father trying to interest his son in a soccer ball. When the son clearly wasn’t interested, Mia stole the ball.
Stephanie described Mia’s outfit on that day she kicked her 1st ball. “It’s like a photo on my mind, the ball on that green grass,” she noted. “Mia was wearing a lavender dress with lace tights and white shoes, as she made her way down the playground slide; then she jumped over a puddle and beelined for a soccer ball that had caught her eye. We didn’t even know it was there. She just ran and booted it!”
The boy ran off, as Mia and the Italian father kicked the ball back and forth for more than half an hour. We never imagined,” Stephanie said, as she continued sharing fond memories of Mia’s soccer start. Later, Garrett and Mia became simultaneously interested in soccer. From that point, Mia was very competitive, very athletic. “We never guided her with you have to do this. We just let all our kids make the decisions on what sports they wanted to play,” Bill added. Yet, without even realizing it, he had sown budding “soccer seeds.”
After fulfilling a reassignment to Texas at the Euro-Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training Program, Bill was delighted to learn that his family was, yet again, bound for Europe – to the position as Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. For a fighter pilot who’d flown 273 combat missions in Vietnam and endured a year-long separation from family, these Italy tours marked a sweet spot in his near 28 years of military service.
To civilians, uprooting family and moving across the world – twice – might seem risky. To Stephanie, this was ordinary life. Raised an Air Force brat and daughter of a bomber and test pilot, moving was second nature to her. Youngest daughter, Caroline, attested to the admirable heart-matter of military families, as she joined our conversation.
The “super mom” of five, as affectionately dubbed by her mother, shared how she and her siblings made their own military dependent ID cards, before they were old enough to have them. In anticipation of receiving their “badge of honor,” Caroline described how they created their own using a typewriter, paper, glue and baby photos. Her reference to antiquated uses of paper reminded me of her mother’s earlier comment, labeling herself as a “one or two letter-a-day person” during Bill’s Vietnam tour. Perhaps, in some ways, life was simpler when we spent time penning such important things.
Badges of honor are generally acquired through less than desirable circumstances. For the Hamm family, those badges came through a bone marrow failure. Colonel Hamm left the Air Force in 1995, quickly returning to the U.S. when their oldest son, Garrett, came out of remission from a rare disease named aplastic anemia (which had mutated into myelodysplastic syndrome). Still clinging to hope and premature good-byes, Garrett faded into heaven at 3:00 p.m. on April 16, 1997, leaving behind wife, Cherylynn, and young son, Dillon.
There is no “getting over” such a profound loss. Going forward can, however, restore hope and transform loss into a legacy of love. For the Hamm family, that is surely the case; they are healing by helping others heal.
Together, they work on initiatives that serve patients in need of bone marrow failure transplants. All of their children are in the marrow registry. Mia, now a FIFA Woman’s World Cup Hall of Fame inductee and retired professional soccer player, is active with Be the Match, a project of the National Marrow Donor Program and the Mia Hamm Foundation. Stephanie serves on committees in Texas and California that fundraise to assist the Aplastic Anemia & Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) International Foundation. Both Bill and Stephanie regularly return to Selma, to work alongside the McRae-Gaines Learning Center which is instrumental in providing a future for children in that rural Alabama community.
The Hamm children have also moved forward to shape the world around them – through science, medicine, music, teaching, and parenting. Maybe, it’s in having raised two artistically-inclined military brats myself that the work of the Hamm’s youngest son, Martin, hit a sweet spot with me. In addition to giving his time to mentor challenged teen boys with tools to control anger and change attitudes, Martin paints a thousand words through the lens of a camera with “MartyAngles.com.”
We closed the broadcast by asking retired Colonel Bill and Stephanie Hamm what piece of advice they might offer to other military parents. How can they support their children amid transition? What could they tell those parents about facing the challenges of military life?
Bill began, “understand the trauma your kids are going through. As military members and spouses, we say ‘well, we’ve got to go.’ Spend more time than just that. Sit down around the table and talk to them about the fact that no matter how they feel, they will make new friends. And don’t tell them we’ll come back and visit …
because that almost never happens. Be a family that talks to each other. Understand the limitations you have in talking with your children.”
Stephanie echoed her husband’s comments, and added, “Understand that there’s a grief process even in moving. Honor and respect the friendships they are leaving, avoid saying ‘you’ll get over it.’ Honor the fact that grief is real. You learn about your children by doing that; you learn what it is to be a human being. Help them move on and not get stuck.”
There, in the process of spending time with Bill and Stephanie Hamm, we gained some insight into life’s most persistent and urgent question. What you are doing for others is, essentially, creating a legacy of love. And, every so often, you’re fortunate to meet a family who simply and humbly practices selfless giving.
To hear “Resilient Military Families,” a conversation with Mia Hamm’s parents, click HERE.