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Arlington tragedy: Deceased colonel remembered as loving, generous and proud of service

Jun. 25, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Col. Robert Stanton Terrill, in a 2009 photo, stands next to a portrait of himself and his wife, Helen.
Col. Robert Stanton Terrill, in a 2009 photo, stands next to a portrait of himself and his wife, Helen. (Lock Haven University)
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Retired Air Force Col. Robert Stanton Terrill was married to his wife, Helen, for 65 years before she passed away after a long illness in 2009. Helen was laid to rest in Section 64 of Arlington National Cemetery.

The morning of June 20, the 92-year-old Terrill left his home in Falls Church, Virginia, went to the section where his wife was buried, and apparently shot himself.

Terrill’s apparent public suicide — believed to be the first such incident in the cemetery’s history — shocked those who knew him. Neighbors and acquaintances remember Terrill as a loving and generous man who was proud of his military service. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command is still investigating Terrill’s death and has not officially confirmed that he committed suicide, but officials say they do not suspect foul play.

“I don’t think any of us had any idea,” said Janice Gaynor, who lived on the same street as the Terrills for more than four decades. “He didn’t complain or anything.”

Joby Topper, director of library and information services at Lock Haven University in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania — the town where Terrill was born and raised — said the Terrills generously supported their alma mater. Helen Terrill established the Helen B. Terrill Library Trust Fund at Lock Haven University.

“They’ve done so much for us,” Topper said. “They donated a lot of, not just money, but time and energy to the library and archives. They are both sorely missed.”

Terrill was a pilot who studied advanced flight maneuvers at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1941 and finished training to be a flight instructor at Altoona Aviation Flying School in March 1942, according to archival copies of the Lock Haven Express newspaper provided by Topper.

Terrill met his future wife, Helen Burgess, around 1942 when they both attended Lock Haven State Teachers College, which later became Lock Haven University, Topper said. Terrill quit school to join the military later that year, Topper said, and the Terrills’ 1944 wedding notice identifies him as “Lt. (j.g.) Robert S. Terrill, a naval flier.”

Topper wasn’t sure whether Terrill went overseas during World War II, but said he trained aspiring pilots at Lock Haven. Later, he flew combat missions during the Korean War, Topper said.

“Like so many guys at that point, he wanted to be part of the war effort,” Topper said.

By 1951, Terrill was an Air Force major who worked in the Pentagon, serving as adjutant in charge of air operations for the military’s various National Guard bureaus, according to an article in the Lock Haven Express that year.

Air Force Personnel Center spokesman Michael Dickerson said Terrill was commissioned in 1946. Because the Air Force was not created until 1947, it is possible he was commissioned in its predecessor, the Army Air Corps.

Dickerson said Terrill was a command pilot who recorded more than 8,000 flying hours. He was promoted to colonel in 1959, and retired in 1968. His last duty station was at the Pentagon.

Gaynor said Terrill enjoyed reading and discussing nonfiction books about military history and past wars, and enjoyed the outdoors and taking care of his yard. The Terrills spent much of their summers at the beach, she said. And Terrill enjoyed going to the officers club, she said.

Terrill was known on his street for helping his neighbors when they became sick. About 25 years ago, Gaynor said, her own husband developed cancer. Gaynor was an elementary schoolteacher at the time, and had trouble getting off work to take her husband to his treatments. So Terrill volunteered and took Gaynor’s husband to his cancer treatments.

“That was very common, him helping,” Gaynor said. “We were most grateful. He was very good to his wife, he took care of her when she was sick [the last few years of her life], and any of his friends, he always offered” to help.

Topper said he last saw Terrill in March, at an annual lecture the Terrills sponsored at the university.

“He stayed after the lecture and talked with the guest speaker for a while, talking about the history of the city,” Topper said. The guest speaker “remembered a few people Terrill knew personally in the ’40s and ’50s. He was a nice guy — soft spoken, just a good person.”

Terrill was found dead near Columbarium Courts in Section 64. Local police and Army Criminal Investigation Command agents were dispatched to the cemetery at 10 a.m. on Friday after receiving reports of a single gunshot there.

“This was a tragic day at Arlington National Cemetery and our heartfelt condolences go out to the family of Col. Terrill,” Arlington National Cemetery Superintendent Jack Lechner Jr. said in a Tuesday news release identifying Terrill as the deceased. “We are grateful for his military service to our country.”

Topper said Terrill is survived by his younger brother and sister-in-law, David and Barbara Terrill. A call placed to David Terrill’s home in Lock Haven was not immediately returned.

Jeff Schogol contributed to this article.

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