It is always difficult in a short item like this to do justice to a grand person like Chip Lavigne. But if I had only one sentence in which to summarize his personality and to express his code of living, I would say that he evaluated people for what they were; he tried with warmth and sympathy to understand them better; and he based his friendships on intrinsic values rather than on an individual’s station in life. He was equally at home at a bull session with a barracks policeman in the 17th division “sinks” or in the Superintendent’s quarters where we frequently went with Bill Smith for Saturday night dinner. He had a keen and infectious sense of humor that carried him through any situation—as By Paige expressed it very simply when we were still cadets: “It was too bad that everyone couldn’t be Lavigne’s roommate. I knew what he meant because I was Chip’s roommate at the time.
By any standards, Chip had pretty tough breaks over the years, but Chip wasn’t one to reveal them. I didn’t realize the extent of them myself until months after his death when I had occasion to talk at length with Betty and their son Jimmy in connection with the preparation of this memorial.
Chip was bom on 9 April 1908, at Hancock, Michigan, in the upper peninsula, of French-Canadian stock. He was a distant relative of Kid Lavigne, one-time lightweight boxing champion who also came from that section of Michigan. Enlarging on his family tree, Chip loved to tell with wry humor how he expected some day to inherit part of Montreal. History has it that Louis XIV granted a tract of land to one Lieutenant Tessier de la Vigne in recognition of his service, and a plaque on the Bank of Montreal today attests that the Lavignes first settled on that spot. Betty still keeps an old newspaper clipping which tells the story of the 300 heirs who actually instituted legal action and filed suit in the superior court to the tune of a $1,000,000,000 claim for the land on which Notre Dame Cathedral, some banks, and several office buildings now stand. Chip’s typical reaction was compassion for the simple farmers who sold their land in anticipation of the bonanza, while allowing that he would continue to work for a living.
When Chip was nine, his father died suddenly after only three days of illness. From that time on, Chip and two brothers, close to his own age, helped to take care of their widowed mother for the remainder of her life.
In 1932 the family moved to Detroit. Three years later Chip graduated from Southeastern High School and earned a full scholarship to Michigan Tech. During his year and a half there Chip earned a letter in basketball, but, in what seemed to be a typical turn of fate for Chip, the school could not afford to buy the letters.
It was while he was home in Detroit on vacation that Chip was involved in the very serious automobile accident that turned out to be a well-disguised blessing for him—and us. He was recovering from his injuries when he heard about and obtained his appointment to West Point.
At the Academy he was adequately proficient in academics without threatening any of the existing records, and he made a creditable showing in the full gamut of intramural athletics. Off duty, he was equally popular in the poker games after Taps and at the Saturday night hops with the ladies who found him an attractive, interesting date.
Upon graduation, Chip’s first station was Fort Wayne, Michigan. Like most of us, he had a long tour of CCC duty in those days of the Great Depression. Then, along with the majority of the Infantry officers in our Class, he attended The Infantry School at Fort Benning in 1938-37. He was part of that group of ’32 which included the present Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as well as several of the top generals in the Army today.
Chip and Elizabeth Barbara Stieber of Detroit were married in July 1937 and sailed immediately for Puerto Rico where they spent two interesting years at Henry Barracks, located in the mountains 30 miles from San Juan. This was followed by tours with the 3d Infantry at Fort Snelling and Camp Jackson, South Carolina, just prior to Pearl Harbor.
With all-out mobilization, Chip was selected for key positions and rose rapidly, first, commanding the 532d Airborne Infantry Battalion, followed by an assignment with the 12th Armored Group. For the first time in our careers, promotion was not based on length of service but on performance in a selected position. It is noteworthy that this former prototype of the first-class "buck” was promoted to major and lieutenant colonel well ahead of the majority in our Class.
At this point in his career Chip received his crudest blow: he was found to be a diabetic and was retired for physical disability with immediate recall to limited active service. This was always Chip’s greatest regret, not the malady, which he dominated and lived with for the next 21 years, but the fact that it prevented him from going overseas where he felt he was needed most. Despite periodic trips to the hospital, he continued on active duty with various units in the States, attained the rank of full colonel, and was awarded the Commendation Ribbon. In June of 1946 he retired permanently from the Service and began his career as a civilian.
During the next three years he attended Colorado College and the University of Miami, taking all of the psychology courses available with a view toward applying them in his area of primary interest: personnel administration. In the summer of 1949 he returned to his native Detroit where he attended Wayne State for more psychology courses and remained there permanently to help take care of his mother in her final years.
For 11 years he was a bank examiner in the Michigan State Banking Department, resigning in the spring of 1963 when his office was moved to another city. He then joined a real estate firm. Just about this time he received another severe jolt. An operation for a detached retina was unsuccessful, and he lost the sight of one eye completely, with the added threat that he might lose the other. Again, he did not let it get him down and continued on his job. When I saw him 18 months later, I would not have known about his condition had I not heard about it beforehand.
On 30 October 1965, Chip was aware of an uncomfortable sensation, but he attended his regular Saturday night poker session as usual. He telephoned the doctor the following day, and when he visited him on Monday, he was hospitalized immediately on the basis of a serious cardiogram. That same night he suffered a massive coronary attack in the hospital, and his condition was critical. He received the best of medical care, however, and two weeks later was moving around so well that the doctor said he could go home in a few days. One hour later he suffered another massive attack, and it was all over.
The three classmates and wives then in Detroit, the Hartshorns, Garrisons, and Zitzmans, attended the funeral services, and a floral piece from the Class of '32 with black, gold, and gray ribbons had been arranged. Betty received all the help she needed in connection with Chip’s military service, particularly from John Pugh who was then commanding general of VI Corps in Battle Creek. Through it all and after, Betty met all of her responsibilities with her chin up and like the lady she is. She and son Jimmy have since moved from St. Clair Shores into a comfortable little house in Detroit proper, where I saw them last during a long Sunday afternoon visit.
Jimmy, a tall, good-looking boy at 21 who attended our 25th and 30th Reunions at West Point with Chip, will graduate from the University of Detroit this spring and plans to go on to law school. In addition to all of his own responsibilities, Jimmy administers and coaches a basketball team in a program for young boys in Michigan.
As I come to the end of this memorial, I am looking again at a statement in Chip’s biography in the 1932 Howitzer which I wrote 35 years ago: "This representative of Michigan is a man who lives strictly by his own set of principles as to right and wrong...” I think we can safely say now that they were a pretty good set of principles.
—Ken Zitzman, ’32
TESSIER dit LAVIGNE