MINT HILL – As participants gathered at Bain Elementary School to line up for the 35th annual Mint Hill Madness parade, resident Billy Kiser was with the parade’s lead-off group in his antique Ford convertible.
Kiser had the honored task of driving the parade’s grand marshal. He was ready to go about an hour before the parade kicked off.
Moments later, the grand marshal rolled into the school parking lot and got out of a 2013 Jaguar. The grand marshal was not some hot-shot celebrity.
The grand marshal was an 87-year-old American hero named Quincy Collins.
Being named the grand marshal was a fitting tribute to a man that spent over two decades in the United States Air Force. But Collins’ time in the air force was no ordinary tour of duty.
Collins spent almost eight years of that time locked up in a Prisoner of War camp in Hanoi in Vietnam. Collins, who was raised in Concord, was shot down Sept. 2, 1965, after his jet was hit by enemy fire. Collins spent 2,721 days as a POW before being released Feb. 12, 1973.
During his time as a POW, Collins was a cellmate with current Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain, who was the Republican nominee for President in 2008, losing to President Barack Obama.
Collins and other POWs helped McCain with activities that boosted morale and passed the time while being held in captivity. The POWs organized church services, patriotic events and other activities while being held in Vietnam.
“John was very active. He didn’t let a minute go by without something happening,” Collins said. “John is a happening guy. John is one of my guys. We were in the same prison cell for about a year and a half. We entertained the troops. I’m a music guy myself.”
Collins described McCain as a great storyteller who would describe whole movies from start to finish. Christmas was a time that McCain was at his best in retelling movies, Collins said.
“At Christmas time, John would tell the rest of us Christmas movies in technicolor,” Collins said with a laugh. “He must have known a 100 of them. He helped the time go by. He knew who produced it, who directed it, who acted in it. John provided us a lot of entertainment.”
But most of all, Collins said, McCain is a true American hero.
“Good man,” Collins said. “He is a good patriotic American, and I would go to battle with John anytime, anywhere.”
Collins said he didn’t hesitate with a yes when he was asked to lead the parade at the biggest event each year in Mint Hill. While in the air force, Collins was awarded two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a POW medal and a Distinguished Service medal.
“Mint Hill is a familiar place to me,” Collins said. “One of my good friends is (former Mint Hill mayor) Bobby Long, and Bobby lives out here. I served on the committee that was designing the Vietnam Memorial. I know Mint Hill is Patriotic USA. I don’t think there is another place in North Carolina that celebrates veterans as much as this place. That makes me feel good.”