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John L. Withers, 91; Sheltered Two Young Victims of WWII
"The thing about both my dad and Martin Weigen was they really didn't care about any of the labels we put on people," said one of Dr. Withers's sons, John Withers II, the U.S. ambassador to Albania. "If you were a good person, they loved you. It didn't matter if you were an entirely different creed, race or gender. I'd be hard put beyond those two people to tell you of two other people who not only voiced that creed but acted upon it."
The families became close friends -- an extended family, really -- exchanging holiday gifts and attending family weddings, and the Witherses attended Weigen's funeral in 2003.
John L. Withers was born Sept. 8, 1916, in Greensboro, N.C., at the height of the Jim Crow era, to a janitor and seamstress. He graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in 1937 and received a master's degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin in 1941.
Inducted into the still-segregated Army, Dr. Withers was 28 when he was shipped to Europe. Soft-spoken and humble, he didn't smoke, drink or curse. During a leave in London, he attended the theater and frequented the libraries. His assignment was to run Quartermaster Truck Company 3512, which ferried supplies to the front lines. Army brass worried about diseases that the starving and weakened prisoners might carry and ordered supply companies to keep their distance.
Despite those orders, Dr. Withers agreed to let the young men he encountered stay, and his troops dressed them in fatigues and boots. They washed dishes and hosed down equipment, picking up some English in the process. They vanished when white officers or military police officers appeared. When Dr. Withers transferred to a company in Staffelstein, Bavaria, both men followed him. When Dr. Withers received orders to return to the United States in 1946, the healthy refugees gave him their photos and saluted him goodbye.
After his career with the Foreign Service, Dr. Withers worked in several part-time jobs for the State Department, Africare and the University of the District of Columbia. In 2002, the State Department's Thursday Luncheon Group, an organization devoted to increasing diversity in the Foreign Service, gave him its Pioneer Award.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 60 years, Daisy P. Withers of Silver Spring, and another son, Gregory Withers, a research scientist in Boulder, Colo.
"I think their relationship, their character, is going to live on," Bergren said as she prepared to leave her home in Connecticut for Dr. Withers's funeral. "They were two great men. They're really both my heroes. They're a beacon to all of us."