My Father

Today is my father’s birthday, February 25, 1923. He would have been 96.

I’ve often wondered, as I research Grandpa’s service in World War 1, what Daddy knew of this time in his own father’s life. Did they share, as some fathers and sons do, the accounts of war, stories of camaraderie among soldiers, duty to country?

If they did, they kept their discussions private. I never heard them.

My age may have contributed to this absence of war stories. Grandpa died in 1967, when I was 15, and too young to have any interest in wars. And in 1981, when Daddy died of heart disease, at the young age of 58, I was a very opinionated 29-year-old woman, a product of the Vietnam War era, with its extreme anti-war and anti-establishment feelings. I realize now, sadly, that Daddy died long before I could open my mind to the personal stories of war, to the very experiences that had shaped the lives of his parents. What had they shared around their dinner table?

The only person who might have shed some light on both Grandpa’s service and Daddy’s own feelings about war would have been Grandma. She outlived both of them. She obviously kept the letters Grandpa wrote. But she never brought up the subject of war to me. When I was in college, I do remember spending time with her, talking about politics, which certainly would have included the Vietnam War. She listened, but never offered up any ideas based on her own experiences.

I have a picture of the three of them taken on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. This event, which led to American involvement in World War II, would present an opportunity to my father and young men his age to engage in the great war of their generation.

Pearl Harbor portrait

Grandma, Daddy, and Grandpa. Photo taken at a studio in Atchison, Kansas, December 7, 1941.

The next summer, on June 30, 1942, Daddy registered for the draft.

Daddy WW2, 1

Daddy WW2, 2

Daddy’s Registration Card for service in World War II. I found this on Fold3.

The American entry into World War II coincided with Daddy’s college years. In 1941, he had enrolled at the University of Kansas (then known as Kansas University) in Lawrence. Many of his classmates were called to serve. But not my father. According to family stories, he failed his physical exam. The doctors found a very slight heart murmur, one that might have gone undetected had he not been so thin.

He dropped out of school and returned home, which at that time was Nortonville, Kansas. And here the story I most want to know is missing. How did this small family of three take the news of Daddy’s military disqualification? Did Grandpa, an injured veteran, want his only son to fight? Or, were Daddy’s parents happy he would be spared the experiences Grandpa had known? Did Daddy want to fight?

The fact that I grew up knowing so little about Grandpa’s war service may be related to an especially painful moment in their family life. I picture a recognition, that the son wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, serving in the military. It’s not hard to see the little community of Nortonville, Kansas, keeping track of “soldier boys” heading off to war and noting that Donald was staying home. Did my grandparents feel isolated, left out of stories of the boys heading out and the fathers reliving what war had meant to them? Easier for me to imagine is this: the report of my father’s heart defect certainly sent my grandparents reeling. Their first son had died in childhood. Grandma once told me, “It’s not right for a mother to bury her children.”

Whatever they felt at the time, and in the many years that followed, is a secret they held. They got on with life, that was their way. And that’s what Daddy did. He returned to school, quickly caught up on his studies, and began what would become a lifelong passion–student government at KU. Here’s a picture of him (back row, right) with the members of the ISA (Independent Students’ Association) Council. Daddy was the business manager.

Daddy ISA Council

November 1943.

Daddy went on to serve in KU’s administration as Dean of Men for many years. After his death, we set up a memorial fund to honor students like him. Here’s how KU decides on the recipient.

This award goes to a graduating senior whose campus contributions benefit other students. Recipients may not be the highest elected officer of an organization, but they are an officer or member who can always be counted on to see through a project, program or service. The recipient of the Donald K. Alderson Memorial Award is always concerned about the greater good for fellow students.

The great wars of the twentieth century served as cauldrons to shape the young people who fought them. But certainly there are other ways, better ways, to find one’s calling. I’m glad my father found his on a university campus. I’m glad, too, he never knew firsthand the horrors of war.

Christmas with Grandpa

Christmas postcard

Postcard sent to Grandma, December 1918.

Christmas brings back lots of memories for me. Today, I’ll remember three memorable Christmases that feature my grandfather–1918, 1943, and 1960.


Christmas 1918, France

Grandpa spent Christmas at a hospital south of Paris, recovering from the injury he sustained in battle, just days before the Armistice. Although he couldn’t identify the location, other than “some place in France,” most likely he recuperated at the Mesves Hospital Center, in the Loire Valley. The clue to his location can be found on the other side of this Christmas card. Christmas card, addressThe number 798, stamped in the upper right corner, is the APO (Army Post Office) for village of Mesves-sur-Loire, a detail explained to me by a researcher at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial (Kansas City). (1) Hospital buildings stretched between the two small villages of Mesves and Bulcy. In November 1918, more than 20,000 American soldiers were hospitalized in this area. Grandpa scribbled a short note on the card:

Dec 26

Just a word to let you know I had a Merry Xmas and am feeling fine am still in the Hospital will write soon.



On December 23, Grandpa sent a letter to his parents. I found it printed in the King City Chronicle, February 7, 1919. Mail from France usually took 4 – 6 weeks to arrive.

Some Place in France.

Dec. 23, 1918.

Dear Folks:

I am still in the hospital but am just like a well man, feeling fine, have plenty to eat and sleep good. I am working in the diet kitchen about six hours a day, and that is just enough to make it interesting for me.

I think I will go over to the town tomorrow, as we boys have all pitched in and are going to buy the two nurses in our ward a present, as they are awfully nice and are working hard to make Xmas pleasant for us. We have our ward all decorated and are going to have a Xmas tree. The Red Cross is working hard getting ready for Xmas. I saw what they were fixing. This afternoon they are taking a pair of new socks and filling them with nuts, candy and cigarettes for each soldier.

I don’t think I will be able to get my package from you as my mail will go to the Company and they are so far off.

In fact, Grandpa didn’t receive any mail for months. All letters and packages went to his “official” address, to the location of the remaining members of his Company C, 356th Infantry, 89th Division. Most, he would learn, were in Germany, along the Rhine, as part of the Army of Occupation.

But even without incoming mail, Grandpa kept writing and managed to send one small gift to Grandma–a silk-embroidered postcard. Handkerchief with full borderThese cards were especially popular during the war. (2) Some were hand-embroidered on a mesh support (here, the area of the flowers), others by machine. Some had only embroidery and others, like this one, featured a pocket to tuck in a card and/or a handkerchief (this one is too small to be anything other than a suggestion of a usable handkerchief). After being embroidered, the piece went to a print shop in Paris to be attached to a cardboard frame that served as a postcard, with a mailing address on the back. Grandpa chose to put this one in an envelope, postmarked December 12, 1918.

silk border card insert

On the back of the small card, he wrote, “Dec 10. Dear Inis. How are you? I am getting along fine but still in the Hospital. As usual it is raining today. Hoping this reaches you O.K. Lovingly, Tom”

Grandpa reported on the festivities of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a December 29, 1918, letter to Grandma, which included “we had a splendid Xmas” . . .

12-29-18,1 cropped

12-29-18, 2 cropped

Portion of letter he wrote on December 29, 1918.

We had a splendid Christmas had a tree and we decorated the ward so things had a real Xmas spirit. About nine o’clock a bunch of nurses mixed with a few male Voices went through all the wards singing Xmas carols which was very nice. Then after that the Red Cross workers went through and put out the stockings, which were filled with nuts, candy and cigarettes, and after we had our Santa Claus and giving the presents to the nurses and our ward surgeon which we boys bought, we sang a few songs and went to bed.

Then the next day we had a turkey dinner, then in the afternoon we were given candy, nuts, apples, oranges and white grapes. Then that night we had a Minstrel show in the Recreation Hall put on by a bunch of engineers (3) and they were good.

I carried a fellow that was crippled over on my back to see the show.

Christmas 1943: Nortonville, Kansas and King City, Missouri

Grandpa and Grandma were living in Nortonville, Kansas in 1943. They may have had Christmas there with my father, home from college (University of Kansas). There’s a better chance they celebrated the holiday with their families in Missouri. In any case, Grandma and Daddy had some fun at Grandpa’s expense. I know about this joke because  the Associated Press circulated the story on their wire. And I know about that because Grandma’s sister, my great Aunt Mattie, contacted the AP with what she considered a funny Christmas prank.

Same Shirt

My great Aunt Mattie glued clippings of her published newspaper stories in a scrapbook. She carefully annotated each one.

What Aunt Mattie hadn’t imagined (couldn’t have imagined) was the appearance of the article in a newspaper in Springfield, Missouri. That’s where a World War 1 buddy of Grandpa’s, a man named Clifford Melton (Ozark, Missouri), saw it.

Same Shirt, follow-up

From Aunt Mattie’s scrapbook. She taught English and journalism at Northwest Missouri College (now Northwest Missouri State University).

Christmas 1960: Lawrence, Kansas

Christmas memories from my childhood include my grandparents, who would load up their car (or pickup truck) in Effingham, Kansas, and drive to our home in Lawrence.

Pink Lady, 1960

Christmas in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960. My first bike, from Grandma and Grandpa.

Christmas Eve that year, if my memory is true, I checked out the presents under the tree and didn’t see much for me. As we opened gifts on Christmas day, I went to bed a bit concerned. But that mood changed in the morning when I saw what Grandpa and Grandma had brought–a bicycle named the Pink Lady. The frame was pink. Shiny fenders framed whitewall tires. A little medallion at the front featured the “pink lady.” I was eight that Christmas, maybe a bit young for a big bike. Mother recalls that Grandpa thought I was ready for a bike, as my older brother and sister already had theirs. He and Daddy assembled it, but not properly. It landed in the bike shop not long after Christmas! But the Pink Lady saw many good years of service. I still have her.

Pink Lady, detail

Older, but still fine, the Pink Lady mostly stays in the garage. Occasionally we go out for a spin.

Merry Christmas! I hope the holiday is filled with your own fond memories of family!



(1) The National World War 1 Museum and Memorial has been so helpful to me.

(2) I like the overview of the silk embroidered postcards at this site from the Netherlands. Click on each picture and learn more:

(3) By engineers, I presume he means men serving at the Mesves complex as construction and repair specialists, men who had done important work at the front in creating and maintaining roads, rail lines, water supplies and mechanical equipment.