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VETERANS DAY 1996 // To a military family born: a WWI veteran's influences

The family portrait David W. Potter keeps beside his bed shows just how deep the military roots go in his family.

There's Potter, who will be 100 this month, as an infant, sitting on the lap of his grandfather, John Caldwell Tidball, a Union general during the Civil War. Next to his grandfather is a great-grandfather, N.J.T. Dana, also a Union general.

"I admired my grandfather (Tidball) so much, I followed his trail into the military," Potter said. "He was artillery, too. That's why I was."

Potter has another symbol of his military service next to the pictures of his grandfathers: a portrait of the horse, known only as No. 26, that he rode as a soldier in France.

"He was a smart horse," Potter said. "The only time I ever swore at an officer in my life" was when he was ordered to give up No. 26.

Potter is one of about 9,500 veterans of the Great War still alive in the United States, according to the Analysis and Statistics Services of Veterans Affairs. About 900 live in Florida. Pinellas, with 110, has more than any other Florida county.

Today is the 78th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Both Potter's grandfather and great-grandfather attended West Point and spent most of their adult lives in the Army.

"I admired those two fellows more than you can imagine," said Potter, who lives at Manor Care of Dunedin.

Tidball, his maternal grandfather, was born in Virginia in 1825 and graduated from West Point in 1848. He served in the Seminole War, according to the Civil War Dictionary, and was in the expedition to suppress John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid.

During the Civil War, he fought for the Union and saw action at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Petersburg and a number of lesser known battles.

He was commandant of cadets at West Point in the summer of 1864 and was buried at the military academy when he died in 1906.

Great-grandfather Dana, whose full name was Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana, was the son of a general, said Potter's son, also named David.

Dana, born in Maine in 1822, was a West Point man, too, according to the dictionary. He was wounded during the Mexican war and had a career in banking until he returned to service during the Civil War.

Dana was severely wounded at Antietam and commanded the defenses of Philadelphia during the Gettysburg campaign. He then went to the Rio Grande and drove the Confederates to Laredo.

He died in 1905.

David Potter was still a boy when both the men died, but he set his sights on following them. In 1915, he enlisted in the Army to join the fighting in World War I, the war that was supposed to end all wars.

Potter spent time along the Texas-Mexican border before going to France with the 76th Field Artillery. He was wounded there, shot in the head and stomach.

That's the most vivid memory from his military days.

"Darned near getting killed," he said. "That shot in the head didn't do me any good. . . . You're lucky to come out, being shot in the head."

Potter recovered fully from his injuries and spent 15 years in the Army.

"I wasn't a West Point man," he said, so he tried to make up for it by enrolling in every educational opportunity the Army offered.

"There were a lot of things I wanted to know," Potter said. "I took in every military school I could possibly take in."

He left as a second lieutenant.

After the Army, Potter spent most of his working life as a salesman for IT&T in New Jersey.

His wife died in 1975, and, after a few years, Potter ran into his high school sweetheart, the former Etta Stewart. The two had not seen each other in more than 60 years.

They married in 1983 in Pinellas County when he was 87 and she was 85, and set out on a round-the-world honeymoon.

The two now share a room at the Dunedin nursing home.

"I had a good career in the Army," Potter said recently. "That was a long time ago."