PITTSFIELD -- It is a long way from the wooden benches that sit along the Pittsfield Boys and Girls Club hockey rink to the commander's chair of the Eighth Army and the Chief of Staff of the Combined Forces Command in South Korea -- about 6,700 miles. And about 41 years.
In December of last year, Maj. Gen. Bernard S. Champoux, of the Pollock Avenue Champouxs, Pittsfield High School Class of 1972, was promoted to that post. Thus becoming, if the Joint Chiefs will forgive a small joke, the first Pittsfield General to become a U.S. General.
Champoux is in command of the combined forces in South Korea, which is not exactly one of those cushy, put-your-feet-up gigs. Sixty years after signing a treaty to end hostilities with the North Koreans, there is still not a peace treaty in place.
"It's still an active situation," said Champoux. "It's been that way for 60 years."
But back to those wooden benches at the Boys Club. Champoux grew up in Pittsfield during what some these days call the "Golden Era" of the city.
"It was magical," agreed Champoux. "General Electric was thriving, North Street was alive. Most of the population of the city lived, at least in my recollection, within walking distance of that street.
"You could walk to the Pittsfield Rye Bakery and buy a bag of bread for 5 cents," he continued. "You could go to Besse-Clark and the starting shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles [Mark Belanger] would sell you your spikes. I know it sounds hokey, but Pittsfield in those days was really small-town America."
He remembers fondly trips with his father, Ret. Col. Francis Champoux, and his brothers to Wahconah Park to watch the Pittsfield Red Sox and their star first baseman, George Scott.
"George Scott was an amazing player," said Champoux. "He won the [Eastern League] Triple Crown in 1965."
And there was hockey. Champoux captained the PHS team his senior year. The Generals were only 7-11, but they played a brutal schedule against bigger schools from New York state and the Springfield area and finished second in the county league.
That served the team well in the Western Mass. Division 2 tournament, when PHS advanced to the semifinals. Their quarterfinal match against Easthampton was a nail-biter, won on a late goal by Champoux.
"The Generals' captain has had a nose for the goal all year," noted an uncredited Eagle reporter in a story a few days later. "And it served him well that night."
"A very good player," recalled ex-teammate Dan Carity. "I played with Bernie and his brothers, Rene and Jean-Paul. None of them were big guys, but they all had a very proud bearing. They all played hard. Bernie was captain my junior year. A good guy. I'm very proud of him."
After high school, he attended St. Anselm College. The military didn't really factor into the equation just yet.
"I wanted to play hockey in college," said Champoux.
When that didn't work out, "I really didn't know what I was going to do after I graduated, but I was very confident I'd be successful."
He eventually opted for the Army, in part because his father had served. But a career was still not really on his mind.
"I figured I'd serve for a few years, until I paid off my school loans."
Ah. Well, a few years turned into a few more years, and then a few decades, and then Korea and running the show in 2013.
"Before I knew it, a few years had turned into 10 years," he said. "And then I sat down with my wife and we talked about it. I said, ‘I think I'd like to do this kind of thing, like my dad did.' "
The title of commander of Eighth Army has a little bit of history. And legacy. It is the army of Gen. Matthew Ridgeway and Gen. Walton Walker, both heavily-decorated heroes of the Korean conflict, as well as a host of other well-known officers.
"I try not to let it distract me," Champoux said, "but the legacy is incredible. I'm very pleased and humbled by it."
Champoux's career is too extensive to recount here. A total of 18 moves. Stints in Haiti, Guam, Boznia-Herzegovnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
All with the help of his family.
"In 1978, I married Mary-Sue Mercure, the prettiest girl in Pittsfield," he said. "You don't do this without support from your family. And my family has been tremendously supportive."
He has three daughters, Caroline, Emma and Madeline, a son-in-law and two granddaughters.
And he still has family in the Berkshires. Champoux admitted that he doesn't get back to Pittsfield too often. After all, a trip back to the Berkshires would be almost epic. But he keeps in touch with his family. And is happy to remember the good old days with a caller.
Bernard S. Champoux is not the first Berkshire County resident to serve as a general in the military. Here are three other men with county ties who served in that capacity:
• Henry Shaw Briggs, of Lanesborough, served as a Brigadier General in the Civil War.
• William Francis Bartlett, another Brigadier General in the Civil War who was born in Haverhill and eventually settled in Pittsfield.
• Edward A Perry, one of the more interesting characters in the county. Perry, born in Richmond, relocated to Alabama as a young man and served in the Confederate Army, eventually also rising to the rank of Brigadier General.
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