When retired Gen. Robert M. Shoemaker died last week at the age of 93, he left the Killeen-Fort Hood community with an enduring legacy of service.
In both his stellar military career and his noteworthy civilian life that followed, the former four-star general served as a model of integrity, character, leadership and honor.
Shoemaker was known for his commitment to his soldiers, his community and his nation — and that commitment was evident throughout his adult life.
During his 36-year Army career, Shoemaker shouldered responsibility on several levels — from commanding air cavalry units during the Vietnam War to serving as commander of III Corps and Fort Hood, and ultimately heading up U.S. Forces Command, putting him in elite military company.
During his career, he was instrumental in collaborating and designing the Army attack helicopter, prompting retired Lt. Gen. Pete Taylor to refer to Shoemaker as the father of Army aviation.
After his military retirement in 1982, Shoemaker and his wife, Tuke, decided to settle in the Killeen area — and our community has benefitted greatly from that decision.
In both large and small ways, Shoemaker touched the lives of Central Texans for the next 35 years.
He was elected to the Bell County Commissioners Court, serving as a commissioner for eight years. He volunteered his time with the Heart of Texas Council of Boy Scouts and the local United Way.
He simply did what he could do to make the community better — without expecting credit for it.
In 1993, when the 5th Mechanized Division was relocating to Fort Hood from Louisiana, Shoemaker spearheaded the Hood Howdy Task Force to help newly arriving soldiers and their families integrate into the local community. The effort earned him the Frank W. Mayborn Humanitarian Award in 1994.
The program was popular with Army soldiers and spouses, and Hood Howdy continues today on a twice-yearly basis to welcome new military families to the area.
Shoemaker was a strong advocate for education, frequently visiting local schools and encouraging students to work hard and succeed. He also pushed for the creation of an upper-level university in the Killeen area, and was instrumental in bringing Tarleton State University-Central Texas to fruition — the forerunner of the current Texas A&M-Central Texas.
In recognition of his commitment and contribution to education, the Killeen Independent School District board voted in 2000 to name one of two new high schools in his honor — breaking a 22-year tradition of not naming schools after an individual.
Shoemaker was delighted and humbled by the honor, saying a few years later, “The naming of the school was the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. I got 2,000 instant grandkids, and I love all of them.”
The school’s students loved their mentor as well, throwing him a birthday party every year — and the general was always delighted to attend.
Shoemaker was a frequent campus visitor, often leading the school in the pledge of allegiance over the school’s public address system and giving students a thought for the day.
When Shoemaker received the Exchange Club of Killeen’s Golden Deeds Award in 2005, the presenter told the story of one student, who graduated in 2004, who was having trouble in algebra. Not only did Shoemaker help him with his homework after school, but he went so far as to attend math class with him.
That’s not just commitment to education. That’s a personal investment in it.
Even as Shoemaker’s health grew fragile in later years, he was a fixture at school functions. The retired general was also a regular at military events, including changes of command and promotions.
Wherever he went in our community, Shoemaker’s presence wasn’t just seen. It was felt.
His quiet, compassionate leadership was an inspiration to everyone who served under his command, worked with him professionally or benefitted from his counsel.
For more than three decades, Gen. Shoemaker was an iconic representative of our community, exemplifying the very best virtues our society values — and we are better for it.
It’s hard to comprehend the number of lives Shoemaker touched in his lifetime — soldiers, educators, lawmakers, civic leaders, students, family members and friends.
As news of Shoemaker’s passing broke Thursday, congressmen, military brass, school administrators, city officials and longtime friends were effusive in their praise of the quiet leader who had given so much of himself over the course of a lifetime.
Judging by the glowing, heartfelt tributes, it is obvious that Gen. Shoemaker wasn’t just admired and respected. He was truly loved.
And it’s hard to leave a better legacy than that.