Since returning to our roots in DeKalb County about six years ago, I have encountered scores of people who have shared their backgrounds, genealogy and historical anecdotes with me, but none stand out more in my mind than the incomparable Don Schoo.
When I first met him five years ago, he reminded me of an elderly Mickey Rooney, both in height and demeanor. But after numerous encounters I find him probably the most prolific, knowledgeable and talkative World War II veteran alive today.
As my old newspaper colleague Jerry Smith quipped to Don last week: “Since that time your jaw was temporarily frozen shut when they pulled you out of a foxhole during the war, it is probably the last time you were ever shut up …,” all said in jest and with good intentions.
If you have met Don or heard him deliver one of hundreds of talks to young and old alike at Kishwaukee College, in school classrooms or at a Memorial Day ceremony, you know what Jerry meant. Even though he’s now 88, Don can rattle off names, dates and battles from World War II as though they were yesterday.
Just to highlight some of his record – he fought in the European Theater with the 80th Infantry Division, as a machine gunner most of the time. He also volunteered as a truck driver to help American troops evacuate the Buchenwald concentration camp at Weimar, Germany.
Belatedly in 2005 he was awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honor by the president of France and in 2010 received a medallion from the Buchenwald Camp Survivors Association for his help in rescuing prisoners there. His chestful of war medals include two Bronze Stars, and he earned a Combat Infantry Badge. I can understand why he proudly displays them during his talks and participation in military ceremonies.
He returned to DeKalb in 1945, and in 1947 joined the DeKalb Police Department, where he served for 20 years. Next the city made him manager of the Taylor Airport, and he worked at Northern Illinois University in maintenance until his final retirement.
Talking about Memorial Day and what it was intended it to be — a day to honor our war dead as well as remember our forebears, we both agreed people seem to forget about those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for this country.
From his youth, Don recalls the all-day activities at cemeteries and throughout main streets, the Gold Star Mothers of the deceased soldiers riding in parades, flowers being placed on graves by Brownies and Girl Scouts while Cub and Boy Scouts, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posted flags at each soldier’s grave. Taps always ended the ceremony, which is still the case today.
On May 27, veterans’ groups will repeat the annual tribute in each of our communities. Try to spend an hour participating in some way, and if you are lucky you will spot Don Schoo wearing medals. Tell him and all the other veterans, plus today’s soldiers, how much you appreciate them. A handshake or pat on the back is the least we can offer them for enabling us to remain free and safe from tyranny.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL. 60115. His column appears the first Tuesday of each month.