TALK TO A veteran today. Don’t wait until he or she is gone.
I learned that lesson the hard way.
In April last year, I got an email from Terry Tiner, pastor of the North Belgrade Baptist Church.
“As I am sure you know, there are not many of the WWII vets left,” his email began. “I have a man who comes to my church that is now 93 who served in WWII and has a number of campaign ribbons. It is too bad that they get their recognition in the obituaries instead of while they are still here to reminisce with. Lou Hassis lives in Sidney and is doing quite well but that can change quick at 93. We have so much negative in the news. I think the public needs a good dose of positive media. If Lou interests you, let me know.”
I immediately wrote back to Tiner, thanked him and said I’d be in touch about interviewing Hassis.
I had planned to perhaps interview him around Memorial Day, but something else came up. So I put it off, telling myself there was always Veterans Day.
And then Veterans Day came and went, life got busy, and Tiner’s email once again lay untouched.
Searching this week for a Memorial Day topic, I scrolled through my emails, found Tiner’s of a year ago and Googled Hassis’ name.
Sadly, I learned he died June 1 last year, about six weeks after Tiner emailed me.
I felt guilty, remorseful and negligent.
I began to wonder about Hassis, about what he was like and what he did in World War II.
His obituary in the Morning Sentinel said he had charming blue eyes, loved to dance and play golf, had a lovely wife named Kathleen O’Hara, two sons, a daughter and many friends.
“He had so many accomplishments in his life’s journey,” the obituary said. “He was strong enough to storm the beaches at Normandy 69 years ago this month and gentle enough to draw a smile from anyone with his amazing smile.” And later in the obit: “To meet Lou Hassis was to love him forever.”
I was beginning to realize what a gem I had missed the chance of meeting a year ago.
I found a relative of Hassis’ online and called. While he preferred not to talk on the record, he said Hassis was a lot of fun to be around but did not talk much about the war. I called a number listed for Hassis’ wife, but it had been disconnected.
I then called Tiner, who was happy to share his memories of his former parishioner and offered to contact Hassis’ wife to see if she wanted to call me, although he cautioned that she had been ill and may not feel up to it.
Tiner said the Hassis’ started coming to the North Belgrade Baptist Church about three years before he died. “He was very well-liked,” he said. “He always had a big smile and always was cheerful. When he came to the church he lit the place up.”
Hassis was not a large man — he stood about five-foot-two — and he had a good sense of humor, he said.
As time went on, Hassis became ill and too weak to attend church, so Tiner visited him at home. He recalled seeing a plaque on Hassis’ wall, listing his commendations from the war.
“He had this Bronze Star and he had a lot of other campaign ribbons and some of them had extra stars. At the time, he was bed-ridden; he wasn’t able to get out. It was close to the time I wrote the email to you. I wrote it because I really felt bad that we have these people still living from World War II, and it’s an opportunity to hear their stories and recognize them, knowing they won’t be around very long.”
I asked Tiner if Hassis spoke about his war experiences.
“Like a lot of World War II people, we talked a bit about it, but he didn’t want to go into what was going on,” he said.
Hassis was one of three World War II veterans who attended Tiner’s small country church, which serves mostly seniors. Now, only one World War II veteran is left there, he said.
“I lost my own dad last August,” said Tiner, 69. “He also was a World War II veteran. We’re losing them day by day — about hour by hour, I expect.”
A U.S. Navy veteran himself, Tiner served on a submarine during the Vietnam era. Today, on Memorial Day, he will recognize World War II veterans at a service planned for 10 a.m. on Cemetery Road in Belgrade.
For Tiner, honoring veterans who served, and those who died while in military service, is a tradition that must continue.
“I just think that we need to appreciate our freedoms that we have because let’s face it, if it was not for our men and women in all the wars — I’m thinking of World War II right now — where would we be? It’s so important for people to have a real appreciation for the liberties they have and have that sadness in their hearts, not only for the people who died, but the people they left behind. For every death that occurs, it reaches out and touches a lot of people.”
I thanked Tiner for his time and for drawing a picture of Hassis for me — a picture I may have seen first-hand, had I taken the time a year ago. I was apologetic, but like most people who understand human nature, Tiner told me not to beat myself up over it.
“When you’re inclined to do something, it’s almost like God speaks to you in a still, soft voice, saying, ‘Do it,’” he said. “I have done that before — said I’ve got to see someone in the hospital and found out the next day he died. A lot of things interrupt us. We start off with an idea or intention and somehow we get derailed.”
A few hours after I spoke with Tiner, Hassis’ wife called me. She told me her late husband was a good man who was proud of his military service, but didn’t share memories of the war until his life was nearing an end.
“He did talk about some particular things … about how he was in his bunker with two other guys and he got up to go somewhere and when he came back, they were both dead,” she said. “He never got over that.”
Her story completes for me the portrait of Hassis — a brave man who nevertheless did not flaunt his service, and one who harbored a great sadness from the war.
Kind of like the veterans we see every day, but do not take the time to approach.
God bless you, Lou Hassis. I’m sorry we never met.
But I feel as if I know you now.
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 26 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]