Saying goodbye to a true American hero

February 24, 2024

Jack Rillema

Saying goodbye to a true American hero

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

The word “hero” is often overused these days. But, today, I, said goodbye to a man who I believe was truly an American hero, U.S. Air Force Maj. Jack Rillema (retired). Jack passed away on Jan. 26 at the young age of 98, about six weeks shy of his 99th birthday. Jack and I have known each other for the past 32 years, since he joined the Scottville Clown Band in 1992. Today, I and 50 of Jack’s band mates, said goodbye to him at his memorial service in Muskegon.

Before I go any further, let me make something very clear about Jack Rillema. He was not an “old man.” In fact, Jack lived on his own, in his house on White Lake, up to the day he died. He even drove! His family would check on him every day but he literally lived life to the fullest up until the end.

Jack was born on March 10, 1925 and lived in the Muskegon/Whitehall area most of his life, with the exception of his years serving our country during World War II and when he went to college at Michigan State.

Jack flew AT6 and P40 Warhawk fighter planes for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II; he was stationed in Napier Field, Alabama. He remained in the U.S. Air Force Reserves for 20 years after the war, retiring at the rank of major.

In 1947, Jack and his high school sweetheart, Muriel, were married, and spent 70 years together, until Muriel’s death in 2017. They raised four children, Judith (Morsinkhoff), Susan (Streblow), Jill (Landman) and Jack II.

Jack was a printer by trade and owned Commercial Press Printing in Muskegon. He was also an avid sailor and well known in the Lake Michigan sailing circles. He raced many regattas all over the Great Lakes and co-founded the Clipper Cup Race, which sails between Muskegon and Port Washington, Wis.

Maj. Jack Rillema

My friendship with Jack, however, was through our membership in the Scottville Clown Band. Jack joined the band six years after I did. He was in his 60s and hadn’t played his trombone since high school, but he and Muriel quickly became part of the Clown Band family. Men like Jack Rillema helped mold me into the adult I became. It was such an honor to grow up in the Clown Band when many of the senior members were World War II and Korean War veterans. I was always greeted by Jack with a big smile and a hardy handshake.

It was always a highlight to see Jack at a Clown Band show. He hadn’t been marching the past several years but he still played at concerts. In fact, his last performance was Aug. 29, 2023 when the band played at Pomona Park in Fruitport.

The Clown Band, for many decades, begins its finale sequence with a song called “Salute to America’s Finest,” a medley of the songs of the Armed Forces. During the “Salute” various Clown Band members (or people from the audience) carry the various military flags. Many times those flag carriers are veterans. Jack, when he was at the concert, would coordinate the flag carriers and would typically either carry the Air Force flag or the U.S. flag. The band’s master of ceremonies would always announce that Jack was a World War II fighter pilot, which would always draw lots of applause. But, Jack Rillema was not about the applause. This is what made him a hero. Jack never talked about his service. He didn’t need to. What Jack talked about was his love of this great country we live in. That’s what was important to Jack. Enlisting in the Air Corps was just something he had to do for this country.

Jack’s memorial service today at Clock Funeral Home was filled to with lots of laughs. His twin children Jack and Jill spoke about their dad and mom followed by Clown Band Vice President David Ladd and then U.S.A.F. Col (ret.) William Pond. Military honors were then given by Muskegon County veterans and an honor guard from the Air Force. Then, we sent Jack out with a performance by members of the Clown Band playing “Wild Blue Yonder” (the official U.S. Air Force song) and the band’s theme song, “Basin Street Blues.”

Jack Rillema was certainly a blessed man to have such wonderful family and friends. But, those of us who knew him were equally as blessed.

Goodbye my friend. It was an honor to know you, sir. Go State!

Footnote: Jack was actually not the oldest member of the Scottville Clown Band. That honor currently goes to Henry Nelson, who is still active with the band — and many other bands — at the age of 101.


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