Jim Upchurch, East Central OK ’66, Honored for His Sacrifice

Published November 11, 2022 on PhiKappaTau.org

By Dalton Lee, Baldwin Wallace ’11

Long before he was a decorated hero and devoted Second Lieutenant of Echo Company, Jim Upchurch, East Central OK ’66, was a friend, husband, brother of the Phi Kappa Tau Fraternity, accomplished offensive tackle for the East Central Tigers, and an inclusive and charismatic presence to all those he touched. Affectionately known as “momma bear” during his time as an undergraduate member of Phi Tau, Upchurch was said to take care of everyone he cared for and was unrelentingly in his willingness to bring others into his fold. On a campus where it was common for athletes to stick within their own circle, Upchurch had no interest or patience for such norms. Ever kind and caring, Upchurch would make it his mission to build a connection with every new member of the fraternity and on the football team. One such individual was Bill Bailey, Jr, East Central OK ’66, who was a freshman when Upchurch was a senior. The two became quick friends and even faster brothers as Bailey’s freshman class of 33 pushed Gamma Xi over the needed numbers to become an official chapter of Phi Tau. As both charter members and athletes, their bond continued to grow. After sustaining an injury during the season, Upchurch sneakily put his jersey on Bailey under the guise of helping him fit his own over his pads. That game Bailey remembers that each time he entered Upchurch would say, “don’t embarrass me,” and each time he came off the field, he would pat him on the back and say, “good job.”

Memorial Plaque of Jim Upchurch at East Central University in Ada, OKMemorial Plaque at East Central University.

Following Graduation from East Central, Upchurch joined the Marine Corps and was quickly one of the top men in his OFC Class. Upon receiving Echo Company, he and his men went to Vietnam. As he was before the war, Upchurch was a valiant leader of men, commanding the company in eight major battles. In an unprecedented feat, Upchurch didn’t lose a single member of his platoon while acting as their Lieutenant. Echo company was a Presidential Citation Unit and Upchurch was a two-time Bronze Star winner for valor in combat. Similarly to Upchurch, Bailey began his service to this country immediately following the completion of his undergraduate education. Throughout his time in the Air Force, Bailey flew 265 missions as a Captain in Vietnam. As these two men—so similarly navigating their way through life—represented the very best our country and fraternity have to offer, only Bailey would return home and Jim Upchurch would pay the ultimate sacrifice. On March 25th, 1969, while acting as commanding officer of Echo Company, Upchurch was killed by a mortar round during a heated firefight on Dong Ha Mountain. Following his death, his Sergeant, Mac, wrote to Kathy Upchurch, and said, “on that day we lost our Lieutenant.”

Jerry Fry, Kathy Upchurch, Bill Bailey and former ECU Head Football Coach Pat O’Neal at the Memorial Dedication.Jerry Fry, Kathy Upchurch, Bill Bailey and former ECU Head Football Coach Pat O’Neal at the Memorial Dedication.

Last weekend during the East Central University Veteran’s Day celebration, Upchurch was immortalized with a plaque upon their stadium’s flagpole. Through the diligent work of Jim’s widow, Kathy, Bailey, and fellow Gamma Xi brother, Jerry Fry, East Central OK ’86, the university was able to pay lasting homage to one of its, and our, most honorable alumni. While this news piece is a far cry from the ceremony had at East Central, we hope that it acts as a conduit for all our brothers to reflect upon those within our organization and across this nation who sacrifice everything within themselves for our protection and safety. Upchurch and Bailey are just two of the men we thank deeply for their service to our country—today and all other days.

Upon returning home from Vietnam, Bailey went on to serve as a Captain for Southwest Airlines. Flying for 25 years, he retired at the age of 60. In 2005, he bought a marina on Lake Texoma in Oklahoma, and has been running it with his family ever since.

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