He died face down in the cold, wet, new-fallen snow sixteen years ago on a shivery, white, mid-January Minnesota day. A day exactly like today. He was a husband and a father, a brother, an uncle, a nephew, a cousin, and a friend. And although Tom Brokaw hadn’t coined the phrase yet, he was one of the “Greatest Generation” the United States of America ever has known.
He was born in 1919, the third of eleven children in a large, exuberant German-Catholic farming family. He was forced to leave school after fifth grade, at the age of ten, to go work and help support the family. That was the year he and his older brother Leo shared one pair of shoes; one day Leo would wear them, the next day, Leo’s little brother got to wear them. In his teens he worked in the CCC–the Civilian Conservation Corps–sent all of his pay home to his folks, and remained a New Deal Democrat until the day he died.
He was sitting at the kitchen table filling out his card for the Selective Service (i.e. the draft) the afternoon he heard over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Within a few years, he would take part in the bloodiest nightmares World War II had to offer: landing in the third assault wave on Omaha Beach, spending Christmas Day 1944 in some of the fiercest fighting the Ardennnes saw during the Battle of the Bulge, helping liberate one of the sub-camps of Buchenwald in the Hartz mountains of Germany (a work camp, not a death camp, was all he would ever tell me, adding a moment later that there wasn’t any difference).
When he finally came home in September of 1945 and discovered that his mother had saved all of his combat pay (which he’d sent home for the family to use) in a bank account for him, he used the money to buy the place where the family had been tenant farmers. He, his dad, and brothers founded a construction company too, and built many of the barns and houses in the Rush City-Pine City area of Minnesota, a number of which still stand today. He was the son who stayed home to farm and look after his mom and dad, putting off marriage and family until his parents decided to move into Rush City to live with his sister Julie. He was always the doting older brother and uncle, though, the tease, the one who made sure every niece and nephew had a Christmas present. He was the reason his little sister Jo refused to let her boyfriends come visit her at home–she knew she’d NEVER hear the end of it once her big brother found out a boy liked her! (Funny, his daughter had the same problem many years later…)
But in 1963 he married the girl he’d had his eye on for more than a decade and they settled down together in Minneapolis. They adopted a tiny daughter of five weeks in 1968. He almost died five years later, when he suffered his first heart attack, but luckily, it was mild and he lived another nineteen years. He lived to stick by his wife through two separate bouts of breast cancer, to take care of his daughter when she had three back surgeries for scoliosis at the age of seventeen. He lived to teach his little girl to fish, to show her by example that nothing in the whole world ever comes before the people you love. He took her to the Shrine Circus (unaware that she was terrified of clowns), the State Fair, and, every year, to see the Christmas lights in downtown Minneapolis. He stayed up with her all night when, at eighteen, the boy she thought she loved stood her up to go out with the campus floozy.
He was my father. His name was Leonard Henry Resch, and I adored him beyond reason, beyond words. And sixteen years to the day he returned home to God, I still do. I always will. And it’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given. Thanks, God, you may have him now–as long as you promise that some day, I’ll see that twinkle in his eye again, and I’ll get to kiss him on the forehead once more. That we’ll all be home again. Together, at last.