At veterans' home, towering legacies of the dead
Each of their stories was different, but common strains repeat: Of humility and generosity; of finding joy in the unpretentious; of a sharp mind disappearing into fog or a hale body betrayed by age.
And, of service, in war or in peace, that often went unspoken when they returned home.
In their final years, these veterans found their place at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Massachusetts. And in their final days, as the coronavirus engulfed the home and killed more than 70, they found battle again.
Left behind by these victims of the pandemic are those who were blessed by their kindnesses. Memorial Day dawns for the first time without them here, and a new emptiness pervades the little Cape Cods and prim colonials they once shared.
At these doorsteps, they were heroes not for valor, not for the enemies they defeated, but for the tenderness they showed. Peek through their bay windows and screen doors and bedroom panes. There is no blizzard of ticker tape, no gunfire of salute, just a void, a hole, a chasm of what’s been lost.
Seeking to capture moments of private mourning at a time of global isolation, Associated Press photographer David Goldman visited the homes of 12 families struggling to honor spouses, parents and siblings during a lockdown that has sidelined many funeral traditions.
Goldman used a projector to cast large images of the veterans onto the homes of their loved ones, who looked out from doors and windows. The resulting portraits show both the towering place each veteran held in their loved ones’ lives — and the sadness left behind. Here are their stories:
Alfred Healy, 91, loved corny jokes and adored his family. He listened to audiobooks constantly and closely followed the news. He devoured history and was quick with facts on U.S. presidents. He was humble. He won a Bronze Star, but his family only found out how decorated a soldier he was when he was gone. He was a longtime U.S. Postal Service employee who rose to become a town postmaster. He was sharp as a tack and liked to deem things “snazzy” or “classy.” On his last night, the nurses gave him chocolate ice cream and showed him photos of some young relatives. And by dawn, he was gone.
Constance Pinard, 73, had a life with struggles: A marriage gone sour, the pressures of raising two children on her own, family rifts that grew worse with an aggressive case of dementia. But there were so many joys, too: The miles she drove in her Jeep or flew in the air to reach new places as a travel nurse, the rank of captain she achieved, the thrill of meeting Barry Manilow, the musician she loved. Her sister Tammy Petrowicz remembers a woman overflowing with energy “like the Energizer Bunny,” who was 16 years older but “still could run circles around me.” The Air Force veteran loved meeting new people wherever she went. Petrowicz recalls standing in a grocery store line with her, chit-chatting with strangers like they were old friends. “She talked to anybody and everybody,” her sister says.
James Sullivan, 99, grew up with nothing and appreciated everything, a consummate gentleman who found joy in the small things — the Red Sox on TV, a cold Bud Light in his hand, a fresh tomato out of the garden. Sullivan was an artillery technician in the Army during World War II who won the Bronze Star. He had a mischievous side, as evidenced by the time his father told him he couldn’t play ball because he had to paint the garage. He obliged, painting it top to bottom, windowpanes and all. He was a liquor store clerk, a school custodian and a city councilman, a man who always beamed with a smile right up to the end of his life. He died four days shy of his 100th birthday. Quiet, unselfish, inquisitive about others. “How you doing, pal?” he’d ask. Whenever someone would ask him the same, he offered something similar: “Never had a bad day.”
Charles Lowell, 78, was a missile guide technician and an IBM operations manager, a Masonic lodge master and town selectman, a volunteer firefighter and paramedic. Along the way, his life was littered with good deeds — the troubled teenager he’d take in, the hungry family he’d help with groceries — done with little notice or unmentioned altogether. “He didn’t tell people things like that,” his daughter Susan Kenney says. She remembers a father always teaching her something new and always trying to make people laugh, something his wife, Alice Lowell, says his colleagues appreciated. “It wasn’t like going to work,” she says of the man she knew since she was a child. “It was going to play with Chuck.”
Stephen Kulig, 92, always had a smile on his face and hard candies in his pocket. The list of roles he played was long: veteran of World War II and Korea, devoted Boston sports fan, bingo caller, school dance chaperone, altar server, soup kitchen volunteer, Knights of Columbus member. His daughter Elizabeth DeForest remembers a man who was a natural caregiver — for his wife of 63 years, for his five children and for his parents and in-laws. “I use the word fierce to describe him,” DeForest says. “He was really fiercely proud of his family. He was fierce in the way that he practiced faith and he taught it to our family and to all of us. Just fierce in the way he loved and protected the people that mattered to him.”
Chester LaPlante, 78, had a knack for improving things wherever he went. He restored cars and could repair just about anything, and in the lives of his three children, he was the jack-of-all-trades father who knew how to make them smile. His son Randy LaPlante remembered his father giving him “bear rides” around the living room, rubbing his beard against his little face and buying him a go-kart. Later, the elder LaPlante took his son under his wing and taught him about being a machinist, a career he holds to this day. “I don’t know where I would be without him,” LaPlante says.
Harry Malandrinos, 89, was a quiet man, but had many stories to tell: of fighting a war in Korea, of touring the U.S. as a band’s drummer, of four decades as a public school teacher. “When he spoke, you listened, because he didn’t waste his words,” his daughter-in-law Cheryl Malandrinos says. He always had a joke, was a master woodworker, avidly rooted for the Patriots, Red Sox and Bruins and would happily settle for “Family Feud” if his teams weren’t on TV. Every now and again, his son Paul Malandrinos would run into a former student of his father’s who would sing his praises. “He was pretty much the working class guy that represents so many of us,” his daughter-in-law says.
Francis Foley, 84, never learned to read music but could play any song by ear. He loved a cup of coffee and something sweet from Dunkin’ Donuts. He kept the nurses at the home laughing. He was fiercely protective of his family. Ask his family about the man they lost, and the words flow easily about the card-carrying union carpenter, Army veteran, devoted husband of 54 years and father of four. “He was strong. He was funny. He was engaging. He was ornery. He was feisty,” his daughter Keri Rutherford says. “He was still full of life. And then within days, he’s gone.”
Roy Benson, 88, whistled a lilting song throughout his life, one of the things imprinted on the minds of those who loved him, like the way he’d stir sugar into his morning coffee or holler for a visitor to return the minute they stepped out the door. His daughter Robin Benson Wilson calls them “comfort sounds” that signaled “the world is good.” He was a towering 6-foot-4. He made friends easily and often, always finding a familiar face wherever he went. He was a mechanic in the Korean War and it seemed like he could fix anything. With old age, his ability to whistle faded. But during a Christmastime visit by Benson Wilson to the Soldiers’ Home, her father managed to pucker his lips and offer a bit of that familiar tune one last time.
Emilio DiPalma, 93, had gone off to war as a happy-go-lucky kid, but it didn’t take long for his Hollywood visions of battle to dissolve into the reality of watching friends die. After the Germans were defeated, DiPalma was sent to Nuremberg, where he made copies of documents detailing war crimes, watched over Nazis in their prison cells and stood guard beside the witness box in the courtroom where the evils of genocide were detailed. One time, he filled the glass of one of the most powerful Nazis — Hermann Goring — with toilet water. Back home in the U.S., he lived a life of humility, rarely talking about his service. “He did all of this in World War II and we hardly knew about it,” says his daughter Emily Aho.
James Mandeville, 83, had a playfulness to him that never seemed to fade. With his grandchildren, he’d swim and wrestle and play basketball, even after he started using a wheelchair. He’d play cards with his daughter Laurie Mandeville Beaudette and, if she left the table, she’d return to find the deck had been stacked. She took to calling him “Cheater Beater.” He found joy in babies and dogs and for all his fun-lovingness, he imparted something deep in those who were close to him. “He always made me feel like I was the most important person in the world,” she says. “We were best friends.”
Samuel Melendez, 86, would clam up and appear sad when someone would ask about his time in Korea. But he was affectionate and easygoing, a man who’d let a young relative have a seat on his lap or give them a dollar from his pocket, which made them feel rich. He loved the island of his heritage, Puerto Rico. He loved dominoes and family gatherings and would jump on a plane whenever someone needed him. When he became less independent, he went to live with his niece Janet Ramirez and when he needed more help, he moved to the Soldiers’ Home, where she is a nurse’s aide. She lost her own father when she was young and as her uncle grew sicker, Ramirez slipped away to his room to hold his hand or to play Spanish music on her phone and put it to his hear. “I felt like he was my dad,” she says.