Imagine Santa behind horn rimmed glasses, a merry twinkle still in his aging eye, but slimmed down, and sporting a shave and a haircut. For all the world that’s Jack Milligan, Highland Village’s 80-year-old Town Chaplain and informal ambassador of goodwill and cheerfulness.
But far from living a sheltered existence among the elves and reindeer at the North Pole with one annual midnight foray around the globe, Milligan has spent his adult life abroad as a United States Army chaplain.
Milligan was born a farm boy in Slidell, Texas, about an hour away from Highland Village.
“I picked cotton, baled hay, milked cows back when farmers did those chores the hard way!” he says with a laugh.
After high school graduation he started life’s big adventure at Decatur Baptist College (now Dallas Baptist University) then moved on to North Texas State University in Denton. Still dissatisfied he graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, received endorsement from the Southern Baptist Convention, and bumped into his future as an army chaplain.
If that’s not enough Type A behavior to wear out any Santa, Milligan attended Army Chaplain School immersed in the excitement of New York City then did specialized study in clinical pastoring, race relations, crisis counseling, and prison ministry.
He shared a yellowed document, a military line graph that described his psychological profile in jagged peaks and valleys.
“That’s the real me!” he said as he pointed to the positive and negative character traits quantified on the graph’s axis lines, “Counselors need to understand their own natures before they can help others.”
Over the years Milligan served as a missionary in diverse places like Africa and Europe. With the military he lived in Alaska and Vietnam and Indian Town Gap, Pennsylvania. He visited the Holy Land, and as a civilian he taught conversational English in China–twice.
On that last topic he said, “There are two basic Christian churches in China, the famous underground congregations and the government-authorized units. Working with the government is smoother than being its antagonist. We gave out bibles, and you may buy them over there.” He bubbled with good cheer as he talked about teaching vibrant Chinese teens and young adults.
During his years near Killeen, in Harker Heights, Texas, he and his wife Joyce started the still-thriving Trinity Baptist Church–in their living room. An oil painting of the permanent sanctuary with its stained glass window adorns his home office wall.
For 20 years the pair conducted Marriage Enrichment Seminars, and did joint pastoral counseling. Having been married for 60 years and counting, they know a thing or two about that particular subject.
Oh, and he’s advised a bank, and been on the Board of Directors of a Kiwanis Club, and ministered to Texas prison inmates. He even discovered the identity of an amnesiac man who came to him for help.
“Reuniting the young man with his family who thought he was dead was the highlight of my ministerial career,” Milligan said.
In 1970 Lieutenant Colonel Milligan received orders for a two year tour in Vietnam. He left his family in Texas while he did his duty with the 2nd Armored Division.
“I guess,” he said thoughtfully, “the defining experience of that war, for me, was that by 1970 we knew our soldiers were dying for a lost cause.”
His wildest moment in Vietnam arrived at 3,000 feet above the ground when the power failed in the helicopter ferrying Milligan to an assignment.
“I knew we were in trouble because I could read the pilot’s lips repeating the word ‘Mayday’ into his microphone,” Milligan said, “On the way down I prayed for my little family back in Texas.”
The ensuing crash totaled the helicopter, but three of its passengers lived to tell the fearful tale.
In 1996, 63 years after he left the farm in Slidell, Milligan decided it was time to retire. He and Joyce moved in next door to their daughter who lives with her family in Highland Village. He volunteered as a counselor for the police department.
Milligan has never known a stranger so his relationship with town officials blossomed. He has worked with police officers and their families, conducted an occasional funeral, offered counseling, and always delivers abundant good cheer and friendship to everyone he meets.
He attends the mayor’s quarterly breakfast with the Highland Village Business Association, “And the mayor asks for my advice from time to time,” he said with pride.
All this time a black speck of a cloud hovered unnoticed on Milligan’s far horizon. Its name was chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a slow-growing, incurable cancer.
“My doctors think the cancer got its foothold years ago when farmers hired small planes to dust young crops with pesticides we all breathed in, then while I was in Vietnam where the army sprayed defoliants that killed the forests, and settled on the bare dirt. Helicopters, my main mode of travel, blew up clouds of dust which, of course, we all inhaled. I wonder,” he adds in a sympathetic tone of voice, “how many Vietnamese people have died from this too?”
Milligan does not fit the caricature of a chemotherapy patient. He’s thin, but has normal healthy skin color, and a full head of white hair.
“About 10 years ago the leukemia first announced itself by turning my skin red then purple,” he said.
An ordinary handshake is out of the question for this gregarious man because it transmits germs his immune system can no longer conquer. He prefers a big smile and an elbow bump that feels and looks like a conga dance move.
“Chemotherapy has taught me patience,” he laughed, “I don’t like being a leukemia victim, but I give thanks in private and public for the good life I’ve had. I tell God I don’t like having cancer, but I can live with it.”
Milligan has made peace with his fate, “I am content to die with leukemia,” he said.
He pointed out life is not always fair. Sometimes, he said, praying and believing does not change events. He and Joyce lost their only son, a 23-year-old student, in an auto accident many years ago. Milligan survived the helicopter crash while another family man did not.
“I know what the Bible says, but I doubt we always interpret it rightly,” he said.
Not one to dwell on the negative, however, Milligan commented, life is what it is, and “We need to be loving, be broadly honest with others, and not take the name of the Lord in vain.”