UNION CITY, TENN. — Charlotte Lannom Shaw was 23 years old when she received word that her 27-year-old husband Lieutenant Richard “Tito” Lannom had been declared Missing in Action. That was 51 years ago. On March 2 she will finally have the opportunity to lay to rest a man she knew as a paradox in many ways – athletic and humble, quiet yet a friend to all, wise beyond his too few years.
The day begins at 10 a.m. at Discovery Park of America in Union City and will include visitation, funeral and graveside services and full military honors. As part of the visitation from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the museum will unveil the newly updated Vietnam War Memorial in partnership with White Ranson & White Mahon Funeral Homes and Magnolia Place Assisted Living, reflecting Lannom’s change in status from MIA to KIA in the Military Garden of the cultural heritage park at 11 a.m. The funeral service begins at 1 p.m. and a processional will lead the way to the graveside at Eastview Cemetery (south on Everett Blvd. from DPA to Reelfoot Ave. then east on Reelfoot to Miles Ave. and North on Miles).
Charlotte remembers “Tito” as an “encourager to all” and the “bravest man I ever knew.”
“He had wisdom beyond his college age,” she explained. “His parents passed away while he was in high school and college and he didn’t talk about that very much. I wish I had asked more questions, but when you are young and living for the future, you don’t ask all those things.”
The son of Edward H. and Evelyn Bragg Lannom of Union City, “Tito” took his nickname from his father. He was one of three boys. Charlotte, who met Tito when she was a sophomore and he was a senior business major at the University of Tennessee at Martin, knows that he had a great love for his family – aunts, uncles, nephews, cousins – and is pleased that nephew John Lannom of Dyersburg helped with the service and nephew Ted Lannom of Chattanooga will be among those sharing eulogies.
Marrying on his first day of leave from Officer Candidate School in Pensacola in 1965, the couple eventually made their way to training bases in Texas, California, Washington and Virginia. At each locale, Charlotte saw his kindness attract people.
“We would go to a new squadron and in a short time everybody would be drawn to him,” she said. “He wasn’t a hotshot-airman at all. He was just a committed American who loved his country and accepted the call, knowing he would stay the course.”
From his days on the basketball court and football field at Union City High School, to his years as a member of Phi Sigma Kappa at the University of Tennessee at Martin, to the time spent playing recreational golf, his love of sports and love of life was evident and shared with his many friends.
Mike Phebus, a fraternity brother, and Lt. Colonel John Cox who wore out numerous MIA bracelets awaiting his high school and college friend’s return, will both share their remembrances as part of the service.
A woman of great faith, Charlotte has asked her former pastor Dr. Danny Sinquefield of Faith Baptist Church in Bartlett, Tenn. to provide the concluding message on March 2. Her current pastor Mark Ragsdale of Church at Viera in Viera, Fla. will also play a role in the service. Ragsdale’s participation is the culmination of a lifelong yet unknown connection between him and Lannom. Originally from Union City, as a child, Ragsdale was aware that a “native son” was MIA and wore the MIA bracelets as a prayer reminder. When he discovered that one of his church members shared a connection to west Tennessee, his questions back to his father Dr. Howard Ragsdale revealed that their family home was built by the construction company owned by Lannom’s family.
“He had a love for that small town of Union City and the America he was proud of and that he had grown up pledging allegiance to, and that’s who he fought for.”
While in Memphis working as a reading specialist in Memphis City Schools and eventually retiring from Presbyterian Day School, Charlotte met Jackie Shaw. Eventually, they blended their families and in their 40 years of marriage have seen all five children and grandchildren embrace Tito and his story.
“That’s a God thing,” she said, noting that one son has helped with the video that will be shown during the March service. Two stepdaughters are assisting with the design of the program, a son-in-law will serve as photographer and granddaughter Alexa Brownlee will sing the national anthem.
Though she now lives in Melbourne, Fla., to be near her grandchildren, it was from Memphis that she enlisted the help of thousands across the mid-South to advocate for Lannom after she learned of his MIA status. As one of her advocacy efforts, in 1971, she and the wife of a Prisoner of War carried a half million letters to the gates of the North Vietnamese Embassy in Paris, France to demand an accounting of MIAs and better treatment for prisoners.
“My goal was to find out if Tito was a prisoner or not,” she recalled. “The POW wife was invited in for a meeting, but they would not allow me to enter. That’s when I knew they didn’t have any bargaining power with me.”
Though his death wasn’t verified, she said, she realized that after they shared propaganda that they hoped the POW wife would relay (she did not), if they had captured her husband, they would have wanted to ask the same of her.
Her efforts were more than just a need to know her husband’s status. They were also a means to address the negativity in the U.S. surrounding the war and often being projected onto returning veterans.
“That was such a hard thing. That’s why we were working so hard with the families of POWs and MIAs to keep the morale of the country focused on our servicemen and not the politics of the war,” she said. “Tito wasn’t interested in the politics. He had a commitment. He had a love for that small town of Union City and the America he was proud of and that he had grown up pledging allegiance to, and that’s who he fought for.”
The family invites all who want to share in the day of remembrance to participate in the visitation from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Discovery Park of America at 830 Everett Boulevard in Union City on Saturday, March 2. The funeral service will begin at 1:00 p.m. Discovery Park and Union City officials are also preparing to accommodate individuals who would like to honor Lt. Lannom and the family along the route of the processional.
ABOUT DISCOVERY PARK OF AMERICA
The mission of Discovery Park of America, a premier world-class museum and 50-acre attraction located in Union City, Tennessee, is to enhance the educational experience of children and adults and to inspire them to learn more about the region’s unique cultural heritage and natural history. Included is a 100,000-square-foot museum featuring 9 interactive exhibit galleries with additional space for temporary exhibits from around the world and a 50-acre heritage park. Discovery Park of America is a 501(c)(3) public charity funded by generous individuals, corporations and foundations including its principal funder, the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation. For more information, visit DiscoveryParkofAmerica.com and DPA’s pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.