"I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted, and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them." - from The Shootist (1976).
June 11, 1979 was a memorable day for me and a lot of other people. I remember it well. It was the day that I began my career as an insurance claims adjuster with the now-defunct company, United Pacific/Reliance Insurance Cos. I got the job within weeks of my graduation from California State University, Long Beach.
It was also the day I came home from my first day at United Pacific/Reliance and my mom said, “John Wayne died.”
That hit like a thunderbolt. The news was not unexpected. Reports over the past several weeks by the media indicated that Wayne was losing his battle with stomach cancer. He died at the UCLA Medical Center in Westwood. It was tough, as I recall, to watch the news reports and the special tribute shows on television that night.
As time was running out, the U.S. Congress ordered, on May 26, 1979, the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to John Wayne. Hollywood figures and American leaders from across the political spectrum, including Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Mike Frankovich, Katharine Hepburn, General and Mrs. Omar Bradley, Gregory Peck, Robert Stack, James Arness, and Kirk Douglas spoke in hearings on behalf of Wayne. The most memorable testimony was from longtime Wayne co-star and friend Maureen O’Hara, who also spearheaded the award.
O’Hara said, "It is my great honor to be here. I beg you to strike a medal for Duke, to order the President to strike it. And I feel that the medal should say just one thing, 'John Wayne, American.'”
The United States Mint stuck the medal. On one side it depicts John Wayne riding on horseback, and the other side has a portrait of Wayne with the words, "John Wayne, American." I have a special edition belt buckle with the medal mounted at the center.
On June 9, 1980, President Jimmy Carter, a John Wayne fan, posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Wayne.
It is hard to believe that this coming June 11 will mark 30 years since the passing of John Wayne. It is also hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since I started working as an adjuster.
Wayne appeared in many memorable movies over forty years. Stagecoach
(his breakthrough role), The Searchers
, Sands of Iwo Jima
, The Quiet Man
, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon
, Donovan’s Reef
, True Grit
(Wayne received the best actor Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn), The Cowboys
and The Shootist
(his last movie) are my favorites.
Since then, Orange County airport was renamed John Wayne Airport. A statue of Wayne stands at the airport and another of Wayne (on horseback) was placed at the former office building of Great Western Savings (Wayne made several commercials for Great Western) that is now the headquarters of Flynt Enterprises at Wilshire Blvd. and La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles. A museum dedicated to Wayne has opened at his hometown of Winterset, Iowa.
Wayne was buried at a private funeral at Pacific View Memorial Cemetery in Corona del Mar. Wayne lived in nearby Newport Beach since the 1960s. Newport Harbor tour boat guides would point out the Wayne home as tour boats passed it. For years, his grave
was unmarked out of fear of grave robbers (Charlie Chaplin’s grave was the target of grave robbers and son Michael Wayne ordered it to be unmarked).
Twenty years later, a headstone was placed on the grave with a Wayne quote (from a Playboy
interview) : "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."
It also depicts The Alamo and Monument Valley.
In his honor, the Wayne Family established the John Wayne Cancer Foundation
John Wayne stood tall in life. 30 years after his passing, John Wayne still stands tall. Fortunately, we still have his many movies to enjoy.