My Father, My Hero

My father (right) with his brother, Bob.
My father (right) with his brother, Bob.

My father was a scrappy, resourceful kid who, before his 18th birthday had become a decorated veteran of the Second World War.

The son of a bootlegger and a spitfire business woman, my father had charisma and charm and a story for every occasion. And he came by those stories honestly.

Born in 1927, my father grew up in the depression era, living in run-down, bug-infest apartments and rooming houses, and moving so often that he’d barely finish unpacking before he had to pack up and move again. Making friends came easy for my father, but eventually he just gave up trying, preferring instead to practicing drumming with his older brother or boxing at the Boys Club located in the basement of the Chicago Police station. He also took tap dancing and ukulele lessons.

When he was seven, my father lived in an apartment above the tavern on Kedzie Street in Chicago that his father owned. One night he became curious about what went on in the back room of the tavern and snuck down there to find a group of men playing cards. He later learned that one of the men was Al Capone.

It wasn’t long after that that his father went to prison for bootlegging, despite the fact that he had over 80 Chicago Police and Firemen on his payroll helping him bottle the bootlegged bear in the basement.

When my father was eight he began selling the Saturday Evening Post door to door, and was rewarded not with cash but cool prizes like flashlights and pocketknives.

At the age of nine, he earned .25 per hour answering phones at his mother’s place of business and learned a lot about the art of salesmanship (and charisma) from the company’s owner.

And then one night, when my father was 14, he found a newspaper blowing down the street announcing the Pearl Harbor disaster. The next morning, after having stayed up all night eating bananas in an attempt to gain weight, he and a friend appeared at a naval recruiting station. To appear older, they dressed in their fathers clothing, but both failed the eye test.

His next move was to look into the Enlisted Reserve Corps (ERC) where he could join if he were 17, then enlist in the regular Army when he was 18. In either case, he needed to age two and a half years over night. And then he had an idea.

The following morning he went to the church where he and his older brother had been baptized and, putting patriotism before truth, he convinced the church secretary to issue a duplicate baptismal certificate and change the date to his brother’s birthdate, September 25, 1925.

In 1942, before my father was even 15 years of age, he showed up at an Army recruiting station with his bogus baptismal certificate. The enlistment officer promptly demanded a birth certificate, to which my father deadpanned, “The Colonel downstairs said a baptismal certificate was good enough.”

The young soldier, Ronald James Whitfield
The young soldier, Ronald James Whitfield

Without further delay, my father was admitted to the ERC. On May 21, 1943, just before his 16th birthday, he was sworn into the United States Army. In the fall of 1944, aboard the Highland Monarch, he sailed to England where he became part of an 11-man crew firing a 155mm Howitzer.

My dad (with the X above him) and the guys on the battlefield in France
My dad (with the X above him) and the guys on the battlefield in France

After fighting in the Northern France campaign, my father was moved into the Battle of Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) which began with a massive German counter-offensive on December 16, 1944 that caught the Allies completely by surprise. Nearly 200,000 Allied and German casualties were sustained in a month of fierce fighting in heavy forests amid brutal weather conditions.

A German lieutenant described the fighting in a December 22nd letter. “Today we overtook a fleeing column and finished it . . . we pulled up along the road with sixty Panthers. And then came the endless American convoy driving in two columns, side by side, hub on hub, filled to the brim with soldiers. And then a concentrated fire from sixty guns and one hundred and twenty machine-guns. It was a glorious bloodbath . . .  The snow must turn red with American blood . . . ”

When the Dachau concentration was liberated in 1945, my father became a guard of the German prisoners. He remained in Germany with the Army of Occupation until the spring of 1946, where he returned home a hero with 4 Bronze Stars.

At the Battle of the Bulge site in the 1980's
At the Battle of the Bulge site in the 1980’s

A few years after returning from the war my father met my mother, the love of both our lives. While working two jobs, he attended the Institute of Lettering and Design (after ruling out Ballet and Welding schools) where, in addition to studying hand lettering, he also studied commercial art and photography.

In 1954, my father formed a business called Loop Showcard which eventually became Chicago’s premier commercial art and photography studio specializing in making slides for company’s marketing and advertising. He sold the business in 1999 in order to care for my mother, who was suffering from a terminal illness.

Over the years, my father taught me many things. He taught me to ride a bike and drive a car, but he also taught me to work for what I want (making me wash his car for a month before I could buy my first Partridge Family album), to be honest so that I never had to look over my shoulder, and to never ever burn bridges because you never know how or when or where you’ll encounter someone again.

Las Vegas marathon, February 3, 2003 -- five days before he passed
Las Vegas marathon, February 3, 2003 — five days before he passed

My father was a hero not only to his country but to his family as well. And he was strong and brave and courageous—a true soldier—right until the end of his life. Three days before he passed, I returned from Las Vegas after running my first marathon. I placed my finisher’s medal around his neck and told him he was my hero. He then looked at me and asked me if I’d read the latest John Grisham novel. “Yes,” I said, “It’s about a judge who offs himself with an overdose of morphine.”

A slow smile formed on my father’s lips. “N-no, dad, I won’t let you do that. And I won’t do it for you.” “But I’m ready to go be with Mom,” he said. So I called his doctor, we took him off his life sustaining meds and gave him ever increasing doses of morphine to keep him comfortable. Before he passed he looked around at his eight daughters surrounding his beside and smiled. “Now I know why I had all girls.”

Though we had our differences and our struggles over the years, I couldn’t imagine a better father. Happy Father’s Day, Daddy!

What about you? Tell me what is (or was) special about your dad.

I love hearing from you. And to prove it, for every comment you leave, you’ll be entered into a drawing. At the end of the month, I will draw a lucky winner who will receive a $10 gift card (your choice, Amazon, Starbucks or iTunes). Winners will be announced in the first post of the following month.

12 comments on… “My Father, My Hero”

  1. Melissa Lewicki

    What an amazing life! Please write a book about him.

  2. What a great tribute to you Daddy, Suzanne. What an amazing life he had. I was lucky with a father who was highly respected by all who worked with him. He never asked anyone to do something that he wouldn’t do right alongside them. He was always fair and helped anyone in need. I adored him – thought he walked on water, actually. We lost him four months before losing our daughter. Double whammy there. It would take too long to list all the reasons why I loved my Dad, but I will say I have never met another man who could live up to him with the exception of my husband. “They” say a girl marries a man like her father and I did live up to that.

  3. Tom Headley

    Thanks for sharing that. I wish I had paid more attention to your dad’s brother about his adventures while he was stationed in Germany at the end of that war. Thankfully he met a nice German Fraulein who became my mom.. What his involvement with the Nuremberg trials was I don’t know but there was some involvement. Glad that someone in our family did pay attention.

    • Tom — at the end of the war, my dad was injured (not sure of the nature of the injury) so he was sent to the hospital in Nuremberg. He was on a ward where the injured soldiers slept with the Americans who were guarding the German prisoners accused of war crimes (the Trials at Nuremberg were going on and they were committing suicide so they had to be guarded one-on-one during this time). At night, the guards would share stories of the prisoners with the injured men.

  4. Your dad is awesome! He’s the bomb!! Really cool pictures.

    I don’t have a cool story like that about my dad, but there’s always been an incident from my youth that I’ll never forget that made him a hero to me:

    I was a very picky eater when I was young and my mother had to find creative ways to get me to eat just about anything. I remember one night at the dinner table I had asked to be excused and she told me I had to finish my potato first.. (I had half of a baked potato that I had barely touched.) I sat and pouted and picked at the potato and even put a tiny bite into my mouth. I asked again to be excused. Got the same response. When my mom got up to start clearing dishes from the table, my dad reached across the table and stuffed the entire potato half into his mouth then put his finger in front of his lips. When my mother returned from the kitchen she smiled and told me that I could be excused.

    To this day I’m not sure if she knew that my dad had eaten the potato of if she really truly thought that in about 45 seconds I had polished off that spud, but either way, my dad was my hero that night. And I’m sure he was probably still hungry since we didn’t have a lot of money and sometimes mealtime was scarce, but again – my dad, my potato-eating hero.

    Thanks for sharing your lovely story.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  5. Suzanne,
    I absolutely loved this post. Thank you for sharing it. Got me a little choked up at the end. 🙂 So wonderful that you can share the stories of your father. I really love how quickly you spanned his life. Totally impressed with this post; it was a privilege to read it. My father’s great, but I’m more of a mama’s boy myself. She was a commercial pilot. If you have any interest, here’s a blog post on her…

    • Jason – what a fantastic tribute to your mother, and what a role model she was. They say you can tell a lot about a man by how he treats (and feels about) his mother, and you, sir, must be a stand up guy. I’m sure she’s as proud of you as you are of her. My husband is a momma’s boy, too. 🙂 I’m saving my post about my mother for veterans day 🙂

      PS. Thanks for the feedback on the post. It’s hard to summarize sometimes, but then I hear Kristen Lamb’s voice in my head and I keep at it until it’s as high concept and brief as it can be.

  6. Pamela Knudsen

    I lived with and loved my Dad (the same Dad as you of course) and didn’t know half of all this. I’m so impressed with your ability to craft facts into a very wonderful presentation (story). I loved Dad, and always will. I love you too sissy!

    • I must admit that I “borrowed” some of it from Next Slide Please (his biography), but some of it he shared with me while we watched the Trials at Nuremberg together. Love you too!

  7. Suzanne, I’m sorry I missed this when it first came out, so thanks to Jason for bringing it up. I used to have my students interview vets; oh, how they would have loved your dad! We must keep these stories, these folks, alive in our collective hearts and memory. Thank you, thank you for sharing.

    • I completely agree. It’s important to keep our parent’s legacy alive. I’m glad Jason stopped by, it’s nice to have a man’s perspective (aside from my husband’s, of course) on my posts.

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