94-year-old alumnus on life, love and being a Cold War spy

When the country observes Memorial Day Monday, May 27, Manuel “Manny” Chavez ’76, lieutenant colonel U.S. Air Force (retired), will begin the day by raising a ceremonial flag outside his east Kendall home. Then he and his wife Bernice will visit the cemetery where they will place a flag on the grave of their son, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Korea.

Sixteen million Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. The 94-year-old Chavez is one of the 1.4 million veterans of the war who are still living. The men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice serving their country are never far from his mind.

“I think about them all the time. Every day. It just comes to mind, people who have sacrificed their lives for this country,” Chavez says. “You never forget. Never.”

‘I wanted a career in public service’

Chavez was born in 1918 in the small town of Las Cruzes, New Mexico. His mother tended to the house and to Manny and his older sister. His father worked in public service. A self-described chamaco, or local boy, “Manuelito,” as he was known, picked up whatever work he could during the Great Depression. Shining shoes, delivering newspapers, pumping gas, making ice cream, picking cotton, packing cantaloupe – he had done it all by the time he graduated high school in 1937.

His senior year of high school he enrolled in the U.S. National Guard.

“I had two older buddies of mine in the National Guard,” Chavez says. “It was the marching, the discipline and the putting on of a uniform that really drew me to it. My father’s career in public service brought many poor folks to our home seeking help in solving their problems. His actions and examples taught me to be considerate and compassionate. I knew I also wanted a career in public service.”

With the encouragement of a high school civics teacher, Chavez set his sights on attending Georgetown University to pursue a career in public or foreign service. His funds were limited, however, so he settled on Woodbury College in Los Angeles, earning his associate’s degree in 1939. Chavez had saved enough while at Woodbury to continue his studies at his dream school in Washington, D.C., but it was not to be. In 1940, Uncle Sam called up the New Mexico National Guard to active federal duty in preparation for Word War II.

Love takes flight

After graduating from flying school in April 1942 as a pilot, Chavez was sent to the Boca Raton Army Air Field to work in air training command. There, he met his future wife, Bernice, who was an Air Corps nurse assigned to the base.


He met her Feb. 12, 1943, they “danced all night” at a formal dance at the Boca Raton Resort Hotel a day later, and their first date was Sunday, Feb. 14. The dashing pilot invited the beautiful nurse with the captivating smile to join him on a plane ride. It would be her first flight.

“I flew a single engine BT-9, a training plane, which has a front and rear cockpit,” Chavez recounts. “She had to wear a parachute. I helped her put it on and told her how to bail out. ‘Count to three before pulling the ring to open the canopy.’ Then I strapped her in the rear cockpit while I flew the plane from the front cockpit.

“We communicated by radio and earphones,” he recounts in a short story he wrote of their courtship. “Ah, so romantic.”

Chavez flew at the minimum allowed altitude so Bernice could better enjoy the spectacular view of the coastline, cities and beaches. They flew down to Marathon then returned north through the center of the Everglades to Lake Okeechobee and back to the base. Says Chavez, “Our first real date, on Valentine’s Day, courtesy of Uncle Sam.”

They were married five months later at the base chapel. Sixteen months later the first of their five children, a son named Stephen, was born. Rules of the day required that the new mother resign from military service.

Chavez, who still remembers minute details of events decades old, says that the Catholic chaplain advised the couple that short courtships never last. With each anniversary and birth of a child, the couple sent the priest a card letting him know they were still happily married.

‘Military service is probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me’

During World War II, Chavez spent time in the Philippines on submarine patrol and in Okinawa, Japan, in combat. He was discharged from duty in December of 1945.

A year later, Chavez was called back to active duty and received counter-intelligence training by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence School. He subsequently served as an air attaché in 10 countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. He was also assigned to the CIA field office in Miami during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Says Chavez, “I loved being a spook.”

Chavez retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel in 1966 and settled in Miami where he worked as a security consultant for multinational corporations.

“Military service is probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me because you create friendships that last a lifetime,” Chavez says. “The discipline, the association of people with knowledge. To me, it made my life. And our family [has] enjoyed military life because of the relationships we’ve established over the many years.”

Three generations of FIU graduates

Chavez read an article in The Miami Herald in 1975 about FIU’s External Degree Program that offered active and retired military personnel the opportunity to get a degree based on earned college credits and work experience. These non-traditional students were interviewed by an evaluation committee and followed a specific academic plan designed for them.

Chavez was familiar with FIU. His daughter Elizabeth Ellen had been a member of FIU’s first graduating class in 1974. Another daughter, Martha Jane, had earned her master’s from FIU in 1975. The retired spy who had made a career of gathering and evaluating information knew all he needed to know about the quality of education at South Florida’s newest university. He decided to pursue the opportunity.

Because of his extensive experience in diplomacy and intelligence work in Latin America, he enrolled in a course taught by international relations professor Ralph Clem. Chavez would meet with Clem once a week during his lunch breaks at the New England Oyster House in Coral Gables.

“It’s been thirty years or so since I’ve last seen Manny, but I remember him and I remember him well,” said Clem, who retired from FIU in 2009. “This program was created for an underserved population whose life circumstances didn’t allow them to finish their education. It was people like Manny who made that program a success because he was definitely intelligent, with a lot of real-world experience, and he was motivated to finish. When he was presented with the opportunity to accomplish this life-long goal, he was highly motivated and capable of doing so.”

Chavez with MBRThirty-nine years after graduating from high school, Chavez earned his bachelor’s in international relations in 1976 at the age of 57. His granddaughter Kelly Gracie later earned her FIU degree in psychology in 1993, making three generations of FIU alumni.

Chavez finally retired in 2010. Today he lives a quiet life with his wife, whom he lovingly refers to as his “managing director,” surrounded by family pictures and the mementos of a life well lived. The two will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary July 23, surrounded by their children, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Contributing writing by Karen Cochrane