Crear knew early on his life would be focused on service
Published 8:55 pm Friday, May 8, 2020
Robert Crear has never forgotten the lessons of his youth.
The Vicksburg native vividly recalls seeing the blood on his mother’s work-worn hands after she had picked cotton all day in the Mississippi Delta. He remembers the bike he received from the Salvation Army when he was 8 years old and the documentary on West Point cadets that he saw later the same year that inspired him toward a decorated career in the U.S. Army.
Most of all, he remembers the sense of community that existed in Vicksburg’s black community in the segregation era of the 1950s and ‘60s, which helped mold him into one of the Army’s top leaders as a brigadier general and commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi Valley Division.
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“I was advantaged, because even though everywhere I went I was reminded I was a second-class citizen, in our neighborhood we had people of my mom’s and grandmom’s generations who suffered a lot under our stifling systems of Jim Crowism,” Crear said. “But they would not let that dampen their spirits. They were very poor, but they worked individually and collectively and did everything to ensure we would have a better life than theirs. That was an inspiration to me. They didn’t have much, but what they had, they focused on us.”
Since retiring from the Army in 2008, Crear has been inspired by those lessons and a lifetime’s more during the next phase of his remarkable life. He serves on the board for a number of organizations ranging from the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign to the Salvation Army and has helped with fundraising efforts for several programs at his alma mater Jackson State.
Crear views the charity work as his latest mission, both to challenge himself and give back to the city that has given so much to him.
“I think it’s just important that you get out of your comfort zone. I don’t think you can be comfortable — I can’t be comfortable — knowing that there are people out there that didn’t have the advantages I had growing up,” Crear said. “I had things instilled in me by my grandmom and mom at an early age, and being back home I see that a lot of kids don’t get that. I think every one of us has a responsibility to get out there, to do what we can to be a role model, and if we can help some of those struggling families raise their kids like people helped raise us in our community, then Vicksburg is going to reach its potential.”
‘I wanted to be an officer’
When he as 8 years old, Crear saw a documentary on television about the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The images of officers going through drills impressed him, but not so much as the message that accompanied it — honesty, integrity, and the quality of your work was what mattered, and nothing else.
For a poor black child living in segregated Mississippi, it was a message that hit home.
“The other thing that caught my eye was when they said that as an officer, your word is your bond and you were judged by your work. That just resonated with me. So when I got home I couldn’t wait to tell my mom that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be an officer,” he said. “She asked why, and I said because I wanted to be judged by my character and not by the color of my skin.”
For the next 15 years, Crear worked to make sure that childhood fascination did not disappear into the ether.
He was the president of his graduating class at Rosa A. Temple High School in 1971. Although he was unable to get an appointment to West Point, he did receive an academic scholarship to Jackson State University and immediately enrolled in its ROTC program.
Upon graduating from college in 1975 he entered the Army with a regular commission normally reserved for West Point graduates, rather than the reserve commissions for ROTC recruits. The regular army commission allowed him the chance at a longer career.
Crear initially was going to become an infantry officer, but changed his branch selection to the engineers after seeing that their mission was to build things. He did not have any formal engineering background, but that didn’t matter to the Army, he said.
“What they really wanted was a leader,” Crear said.
Over the next 33 years, he gave them exactly what they were looking for.
“I was glad to be the right person at the right time”
A couple of months after graduating from Jackson State and being sworn in as a second lieutenant in the Army, Crear and his wife, Reatha, left for Fort Belvoir, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C. It was the first of 17 moves to 16 different posts the couple would make.
It took until move No. 14 to find their way back home.
In 1998, Crear — then a colonel — was given command of the Corps of Engineers’ Vicksburg District. The district oversees operations and projects in parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, and is headquartered in Vicksburg.
Crear made history as both the first African-American to lead the district in its then-114-year history, as well as the first Vicksburg native. At the swearing-in ceremony was his mother, Gladys Ferguson. She died 18 months later, but lived long enough to see her son achieve the goal he’d set more than 30 years earlier.
“One of the traditions is they’ll bring roses to your spouse, and to your mother. She just couldn’t believe it,” Crear recalled. “My mom grew up very hard, in a harsh environment. Picking cotton and those kinds of things. Her hands would be bloody all day when I was a kid. After the ceremony, they brought her up to the executive office and she couldn’t believe it. My secretary and administrative staff were very kind to her, asking if they could get her anything. My secretary was white. She was overwhelmed that they were asking her. Her whole life, for no other reason than the color of her skin and lack of education she had always been subservient to people who were white.”
Once on the job, Crear set about changing the way things were done. He broke down walls between the Corps and its host community in Vicksburg by encouraging his officers and employees to get involved with activities in the community. He initiated projects to bring the public inside the ropes and let them in on what the Corps does and how it operates.
“Everybody knew what WES was,” Crear said, referring to the Waterways Experiment Station. “If you mention Vicksburg and the Corps of Engineers, everybody knows WES. I knew that, too, coming in. Nobody knew who the District is. They still don’t know who the (Mississippi Valley) Division is. I said I’m going to change that. Being a native of Vicksburg, we are going to change that. Those people do a lot of things every day and people just don’t know it. They are coaches, they are tutoring, they’re out there volunteering. I wanted to make sure people knew about it and were getting credit for it.
“To this day I can see the fruits of my labor because we have several Corps of Engineers people that are on boards and leading boards in the community. It was a great assignment.”
Crear spent three years as the commander of the Vicksburg District. He called the hometown assignment the best of his career.
“From a career and personal standpoint, there’s no doubt in my mind and Reatha’s mind that the first assignment in Vicksburg commanding the Vicksburg District was without a doubt the most rewarding assignment that I ever had,” he said. “I enjoyed so much going to work every day. Getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and working late into the evening every day. It made a marked difference in the workings of that district and its perception in the community.”
Crear’s three-year assignment as district commander ended in 2001, and he moved to Washington to become the chief of staff at the Corps’ headquarters. It was a plum assignment held in high regard in the Corps, but he wasn’t there long. He also wasn’t a colonel for much longer.
Crear was reassigned to command the Southwestern Division that oversees four districts in seven states from the Mexican border to Kansas. That command came with a promotion to brigadier general. Even though the Southwestern Division is headquartered in Dallas, Crear returned to Vicksburg for his promotion ceremony.
“I wanted to show appreciation for all of those folks who made it possible. From my teachers, to my ROTC captain, and the community and my family, so I had my ceremony in Vicksburg,” he said. “It was quite emotional. People show their appreciation and are very proud of their product.”
Crear served two years as the Southwestern Division commander, part of which was spent in Iraq heading up Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil.
Task Force RIO’s job was to douse oil well fires and get Iraq’s oil infrastructure back up and running after the U.S. invaded the country and ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In 2004, Crear returned home for good. His final command was over the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division from 2004-08. He oversaw operations for the entire Mississippi River basin from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
During his time as MVD commander, Crear oversaw the Corps’ response to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and New Orleans in 2005. More than 3,800 Corps employees from all over the country took part in the operation. Crear said being a native of Mississippi and his previous experience as the Vicksburg District commander aided in coordinating the relief efforts.
“Katrina was the biggest disaster the Army Corps of Engineers has ever had to respond to. So for me to be the person who is in charge of the response and recovery, it was pretty significant that you got someone who was from the area to do that,” Crear said. “But to me, it was just like the mission to go to Iraq. It was something that I was trained to do with confidence. There was never any doubt in the Army Corps of Engineers and our civilian workforce what we could do.
“It was an unbelievable mission. I was glad to be the right person at the right time to do that, because it was personal to me.”
“I feel like everybody can make a difference”
Crear retired from the Army in 2008, after 33 years of service in which he had risen from junior officer to one-star general. He and Reatha remained in Vicksburg, and made a second career out of their community work.
“The first thing we did was decide to give back to the community,” he said.
Among the many endeavors they’ve supported over the years are the United Way of West Central Mississippi, the Salvation Army, Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign, Jackson State’s ROTC program and JSU’s college of science and technology.
During his work with Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign, Crear has tried to increase the spotlight on the efforts of black Union troops in the Vicksburg campaign and Civil War as a whole.
Crear has also served on the Mississippi State Veterans Affairs Board, runs a consulting firm, and has been involved with a hydroelectric project on the Mississippi River.
Crear said that, as Vicksburg District commander, he tried to take “everything to the next level.” It’s clear that in retirement, he’s trying to do the same with his work in the community.
“I enjoy giving back to the community. I’m looking for ways to do it in an even bigger way. Especially in terms of the young people, and the challenges they face in their community,” Crear said. “How can we work to help these parents who have a tough time parenting? I feel like everybody can make a difference. I’m doing that, but there’s got to be something else we can do in a bigger way.”