In honor of my grandfather, I said the following words at our local Veterans Day Memorial Service. May his example inspire veterans to speak out and inspire all of us. I know he inspired me.
Veterans Day, November 11, 2019
Saturday, November 9, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I happened to be in Paris on November 9, 1989, a twenty-year-old American exchange student, studying at the Sorbonne, walking along the same boulevards where German soldiers had marched after curfew, their boots pounding on the cobblestones and the sound of those boots reaching the ears of everyday people closed up in their apartments behind shuttered windows. I walked down the same boulevard American and French tanks drove down on August 25, 1944, to the sound of cheering crowds. And on November 9, 1989, as I sat watching the news in one of those Parisian apartments, I watched with wonder as the last remaining remnant of that war, the Berlin wall, came tumbling down. People used whatever they had at their disposal, hammers and even their hands, to tear it down. Its destruction was the realization of the efforts of countless people, from politicians to everyday people, but it began with the Allied soldiers who fought and died to liberate Europe from the grip of Adolf Hitler’s murderous regime. It was thanks to those soldiers, many of whom now lie at the American Cemetery in Caen, Normandy, and also thanks to the Germans who continued the fight to regain their lost freedom that I gained an appreciation for history on that day just over thirty years ago. It’s probably why I am now a French professor who specializes in the Second World War and its aftermath.
Last week I read with interest in The Other Paper the stories of the local veterans from that war, still serving here. I noted their service to the US Navy, which brought to mind my grandfather who enrolled at the Great Lakes Naval Station to serve in the US war effort and was buried in 2009 at 92 years of age. If you will indulge me, I would like to remember him in my remarks today, as we honor the lives of all veterans.
My grandfather took great pride in this country, which he bequeathed to his children and grandchildren. A lifelong patriot and Lincoln Republican, he always placed service to others before self. He understood what I’ve come to understand, which is: service to others allows us to become the best of ourselves. My grandfather always honored the president as our president, whether or not he agreed with the policy. He was a gentle man, always believed in the power of goodness and love, and he was an upright and active citizen in service to many. After the war, though a trained architect, he became a professor of applied mathematics at Northwestern University and gave through his service, whether to the Glenbrook, IL School Board or as a food preparer and server in the Good News Community (Food) Kitchen in Chicago — the big city, where he’d been born the son of German immigrants but was forbade from learning German, because it was the language of the “enemy.” He had been born in 1917, when our country was involved in another European war, against the Germans. Later, my grandfather would tutor new Americans, who had fled conflict and probable death abroad and were learning English in their new hometown of Chicago. My grandfather also helped senior citizens prepare and file their state and federal income taxes (even when he was himself a senior citizen), and volunteered at the nursing home where my grandmother worked. He played the piano wonderfully and often played piano and organ at their church. Most importantly, he raised five daughters and took great pleasure in his grandchildren and in traveling the world, always glad to come home — not only to the home he had designed and built for his family when he was a young man but also to his country which he loved so dearly and understood so well. He believed in the American system, based on freedom and equal opportunity and hard work and service.
Now, unlike many of you, my grandfather never served overseas. When he enlisted, at the age of 25, the cause of a mysterious childhood illness became known. The family had always believed that he had survived the Spanish flu when he was a young toddler — in 1918, when he was one year old, there had been a terrible flu pandemic that killed twenty million worldwide (about the same number as the victims of World War II and Nazism combined). When he went in for his military physical, his chest X-rays showed the telltale signs of tuberculosis, and indeed that is what made him sick at the end of his life. We never knew it growing up, because he was just as disciplined in self-care as he was in everything else he did. Although he did not serve overseas, he remained enlisted and loyal to the Navy. Every Thanksgiving as I recall growing up, he and my grandmother hosted young naval cadets from the Great Lakes Station in their home. They hoped that, though far from home, these young men could enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving meal with a family, the American family — and my grandmother was an amazing cook to boot! He received a military burial when he died in 2009 at the age of 92, after a full and amazing life, and although those young naval cadets were not sending a decorated war hero or officer to his final resting place, they were sending a loyal soldier who took great pride in his country and who was dedicated to service.
Today, we are divided here at home, extremely divided here in our American home. We are desperately in need of role models of high moral character, like my grandfather, whether simple everyday soldiers, citizens who take on their civic duty with purpose, or highly decorated officers and political leaders in service to the state.
So I ask you: do not remain silent. What you see concerns you. This is the country you fought for, the country with whom you shared your children and spouses, and we still need you. We need you to speak up and remind us of why you were so willing to give of yourselves — remind us of what you hold most sacred — and why you were so willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it.
In honor of my grandfather, in honor of you, and of all American patriots, I would like to read the end of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speech, The Gettysburg Address, which my grandfather undoubtedly knew by heart. President Lincoln had pronounced it on the blood-soaked civil war battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, 156 years ago. Importantly, it reminds us of what is left for all of us to do.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
This is what President Lincoln said then, and it still holds true today.