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The Person of the Year 1966 cover image, at left, and Thomas McLaughlin in uniform.
Left: Robert Vickrey/TIME. Right: Courtesy of Sally McLaughlin.

When TIME named Americans under 25 the Person of the Year for 1966, those young people — though not as young as 2019’s pick, Greta Thunberg, who is the youngest individual selection ever — had become “the most intensely discussed and dissected generation in history.” So it was only fitting that the image on the cover would depict not any specific individual Boomer, but rather a vision to represent the group as a whole. To accomplish that, artist Robert Vickrey created a composite portrait of the group the magazine dubbed the Inheritors.

But to paint a portrait of a generation, Vickrey went to Yale University, his alma mater, and parked himself at the Yale Co-Op, while Henry Grossman photographed students.

TIME’s editors suggested in a note to readers that the anonymous student at the center of the resulting painting looked a little bit like Vickrey himself. But in the wake of the magazine’s release, the Yale Daily News was quick to identify Thomas M. McLaughlin, an Economics major from Melrose, Mass., as the inspiration for the central face. A headline on the Jan. 6, 1967, front page declared: “TIME COVERBOY: Junior is ‘Man of the Year.'”

McLaughlin, who played football and lacrosse, didn’t dispute the resemblance, although didn’t see himself in the main story, joking, “the only thing they say about this generation that applies to me is that I like Snoopy.”

And yet, more than a half-century later, the story of Thomas McLaughlin, who died in 2010 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, does shine something of a light on the arc of Baby Boomer history.

TIME had high hopes for the Boomers, declaring that their generation would cure cancer and the common cold, and end poverty and war. “For better or for worse, the world today is committed to accelerating change: radical, wrenching, erosive of both traditions and old values,” the story declared. “Its Inheritors have grown up with rapid change, are better prepared to accommodate it than any in history, indeed embrace change as a virtue in itself. With his skeptical yet humanistic outlook, his disdain for fanaticism and his scorn for the spurious, the Man of the Year suggests that he will infuse the future with a new sense of morality, a transcendent and contemporary ethic that could infinitely enrich the ’empty society.'” (While women were included, the story used male pronouns throughout; the franchise was renamed Person of the Year in 1999.)

But before that future could be reached, many Inheritors would have to face a specific hurdle: the War in Vietnam.

The Person of the Year story noted that male Boomers knew a tour of service was coming. With that awareness, McLaughlin enlisted in the Air Force and was part of the “Top Gun” unit that inspired the Tom Cruise movie by the same name. On Feb. 25, 1971, his fighter-bomber was hit over Laos, and McLaughlin and his co-pilot David Hedditch had to eject. Newspaper articles about the event noted that the two spent more than 21 hours lying in a muddy trench a stone’s throw away from North Vietnamese troops, until a Jolly Green Giant helicopter, designed for such rescues, arrived.

To McLaughlin’s friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Richard Forsyth, the incident vindicated a family story about McLaughlin, whose mother had been told by an astrologer that her son was “impervious” to physical harm. “He did his best to prove that astrologer right and never took a step back from any danger,” he says.

Five months after the then-24-year-old was shot down, McLaughlin expressed his disillusionment with the war in a letter home. When his sister asked him what he thought of the publication of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971 — revealing government lies about the mismanagement of war — his July 25, 1971, reply epitomized what TIME had called his generation’s “built-in bunk detector.” He railed about the “credibility gap between what the government says it is doing and what it actually does” and wondered what else the government was hiding from the public:

He remained in Vietnam, and participated in the successful bombing of the Paul Doumer Bridge in North Vietnam in 1972. When he left the Air Force the following year, he put his military papers and medals, including a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Silver Star, in a footlocker. “Typical of his generation, when he came home from Vietnam he never spoke of his experience there again,” his widow Sally McLaughlin tells TIME.

His sons, Christian, 31, and Thomas, 34, never saw the medals until after their father died at the age of 63, from a rare cancer that has been linked to military service in Vietnam. They knew him as a father who worked round-the-clock until Sundays, when they’d have a big breakfast and go to the movies. After Vietnam, he went to Harvard Business School and landed a Wall Street job in skyscraper real estate development. Then he started his own business, developing stadiums in New England for youth sports, even mentoring some of the youngsters himself. “He wouldn’t turn people away if they couldn’t afford to participate,” says Christian.

That spirit is why his niece Ellen Finn, a middle school music teacher in Salem, Mass., has the TIME cover hanging in her classroom: she sees that picture as the portrait of a man who wasn’t born into a family with a lot of money, but went on to earn degrees from the most prestigious universities, serve his country and become a successful businessman.

“You have the whole the ‘OK Boomer‘ thing on the internet, but [younger] people don’t think about what their parents’ generation went through,” says his son, Thomas. “He really did represent his generation, with everything he went through.”

Read more from TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year package and sign up for the Inside TIME newsletter to be the first to see our cover every week.

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