Wednesday, July 8, 2009

John R. "Red" Uleskey, 1924-2009

John R. “Red” Uleskey, a native of South Buffalo, NY, died peacefully Tuesday morning in his own bedroom at the home he and his wife lived in for 55 years. Red was my wife’s father and was one of an estimated 1,000 World War II veterans who died yesterday.

Another 1,000 will die today, and tomorrow and everyday for a long time until they are all gone.

Unlike a recent big name entertainer, who did not fight for his country, “Red” and most of the others will die in relative anonymity and will pay a newspaper somewhere to run a short announcement that their life on earth has ended. The card carrying members of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” barely rate a passing mention anymore.

Like many men and women of his era, Red left high school before graduation to fight for his country. It says a lot about our country that we honor those without honor and neglect those who have truly earned our respect and admiration. But enough about that let me tell you just a little that I know about “Red.”

(Photos: Red and Red and his "girls").

I came late to Red, I married his eldest daughter Joan in 1999, but first met him in 1996 when Joan and I started dating. He was born June 21, 1924 in Buffalo. He married the love of his life, Joan Burke, on June 26, 1948. I’ll do the math. He was 85 and he and Joan just celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. My wife, also Joan, was born March 31, 1949, I’ll let you do that math. Never mind, it was nine months, almost to the day of their wedding.

Last weekend, in between the times my wife and I were turning him in bed, or wetting his lips as he moved slowly, but peacefully, toward his death, I sat down to write his obituary for the newspaper. It was the least I thought I could do.

When we met with the funeral director Tuesday afternoon, who just happens to be “Red’s” nephew, Patrick Cannan, he informed me that Red already wrote his own, 16 years ago. Unlike the flowery, information packed obituary that I had written it was short, sweet and to the point. We updated a few survivors, but left it as he wrote it.

In his obituary, Red didn’t feel the need to mention that as a member of an artillery company in the U.S. Army’s 75th Division, he arrived in Europe just before Christmas in 1944 where he and his buddies were pushed into action in the Battle of the Bulge. Talk about your trial by fire.

After defeating the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, Red and the 75th, followed the huns across the Rhine River into Germany until the war ended. But none of this you would have known reading Red’s obit. He only mentioned his life membership in the local American Legion Post and VFW organization.

He served on the color guards for both those organizations, which was also not mentioned.

Also missing in his obituary was his career as a fireman and later engineer on the South Buffalo Railway working odd hours and weekends to support his family.

Oh how Red loved his family. He raised three daughters and they gave him two grandsons and two granddaughters, who he adored. Three years ago his grandson John, my stepson, and his wife, Nicole, gave Red and Joan a great-granddaughter, Addisen. Red didn’t need fancy trips to Europe, cruises or a second home in Florida. His joy came from being with family.

They have all been with him in the last weeks of his life. Everyone had a chance to tell him what he meant to them and say good-bye. Even little Addisen put on the latex gloves that hospice left behind and told us, "I'll check on great grandpa."

Getting the family together was always a priority for the Uleskeys.

When it was hard to get them all to Buffalo and a little cramped in the 1,000-square foot home that he and Joan purchased in the early 1950s, he financed frequent reunions (three or four times a year) in the 1990s and 2000s at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Pittsburgh, which was roughly half way for everyone.

In addition to letting him be with his daughters and grandchildren, it was Red’s intention that the cousins become closer and to give them the close family ties that he didn’t always have as a child.

There were 25 of these “Pittsburghers,” as we called them. Red's plan worked, my stepdaughter, Elin, and Jessica, daughter of Red’s daughter, Diane, are close friends to this day. Grandson Shaun inherited Red’s ability to fix, repair and make a buck.

The three brothers-in-law were always included and loved, but we knew that our place was a secondary one to his “girls.”

Other than his trips to Pittsburgh, the only other major trips he and Joan took were to annual reunion conventions of the 75th Division. A few times he included us in those plans, the most recent a weekend reunion in Chicago.

During one convention in Missouri, he penned a comment in the guest book at the Truman Library. “You saved my life.” That comment referred to plans for the 75th Division to be transferred to the Pacific Theater until Truman authorized the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Japan.

One of his most memorable moments was when his daughter Diane and son-in-law Denny took him into Washington, D.C. to be present at the dedication of the World War II Memorial. A military person rolled him down front in his wheelchair to hear former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole speak.

In his obituary, Red didn’t mention that he was a kind and gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but was fiercely defensive of his family.

He bought his cars new and then meticulously maintained them, including a few that he took apart to undercoat as soon as he purchased them to protect them from the fierce Buffalo winters.

When something needed fixing at the Uleskey house, Red didn’t run to Home Depot, he climbed into his basement and found the right screw, tool or board safely stored away there. Why buy something new when something old in the basement could do the same thing, or be made into something that would do the same thing.

The obituary he wrote also didn’t mention that he studied and became an artist, that he took lessons to learn how to play the organ and how conflicted he was for a time that he couldn’t decide which of the two he liked better. His grandson, John, my stepson, was the one who apparently inherited those artistic genes.

Until recently, he made daily entries into a journal that kept track of great events, the birth of a grandchild, and minor events, like what he and Joan had for dinner at a local gin joint. Some of his sayings would rival that of any great philosopher.

Red never wanted to disappoint and when his youngest daughter, Pat, signed him up for a class to complete a GED without his knowledge, he began attending after the GED instructor called him and asked him why he missed the first class. He finished with flying colors.

Not that education wasn’t important to Red, he sent two of his daughters through college and taught the other how to read when she struggled at school with the skill. He did crossword puzzles and loved the Sunday talk shows, especially Meet the Press with Tim Russert, a Buffalo native of whom Red, as well as the whole community, were justifiable proud.

Red was typically Buffalo, down-to-earth and real. A lifelong “family values” Democrat, Red was a strong union man who worked construction jobs during labor disputes on the railroad to make sure his family was provided for. He had no patience for sloth.

Between him and his wife, they knew every good restaurant in Buffalo and if they didn’t take you there, it probably wasn’t worth going to. They knew who had the best Beef on Weck (a Buffalo roast beef sandwich on a salt-covered roll) or fish fry.

Red liked his beer cold, his home warm and his soup “extremely hot." He was most happy if he was surrounded by his family and was holding a “Sammy,” a Samuel Adams beer in his hand.

Another thing Red neglected to mention was his skill as a gardener. He raised tomatoes, peppers and a number of other wonderful produce in his backyard garden in West Seneca. He poured his own concrete driveway and built his one-car garage after he and Joan purchased the house.

“It cost $500,” he told me recently. “And Joan helped.”

To save the plastic tile in the single bathroom of the house, Red plumbed and added a basement shower that we in the family affectionately call “Camp Uleskey.” Until last year, no one ever used the upstairs shower.

He was also happy sitting in his “shack” a converted first-floor bedroom that included his Ham radio equipment. When he couldn’t get a good signal he was content to listen to the time signal. KB2FME has now signed off forever.

The attic he turned into a bedroom for his two oldest girls and now serves as the guest room.

Without a formal college education, Red made smart investments and while he lived well below his means, he was generous when it came to his family. Red didn’t think up the phrase “Waste not, want now,” but he certainly brought it to a new level.

A quick wit and a thoughtful mind never failed to inspire a laugh or a good discussion. Red never said much, but when he spoke we all listened. And learned.

Red’s quick wit and kind demeanor endured him to all who knew and loved him. No wife had a better husband, no children had a better father and no grandchildren had a better grandpa.

When his wife had a stroke in April, he insisted on visiting her, sometimes three times a day in the hospital, which took a tremendous toll on his body, which was already struggling with a debilitating Parkinson’s related progressive disease.

In recent weeks, he could no longer go and visit her, but they talked on the phone and last weekend met for the last time face to face in his bedroom on a quick visit from the nursing home.
He sent flowers to her on their anniversary. The two of them demonstrated the real meanings of the vows, "to love and honor ... for better or worse … in sickness and in health."

But in the end, we decided to go with Red’s own obituary version of his life. Simple and to the point, just the way he wanted it and wrote it.

During my years of reporting I sometimes visited people in hospice care, but I had no idea how wonderful service this is. Hospice Buffalo, which helped Red during his last 13 days of life, were incredible. The average stay in hospice, we were told, was 13 days exactly what Red did.

They made it possible to honor his wish that he die at home. We are asking our friends who wish, in lieu of flowers, to make a donation to Hospice Buffalo, 225 Como Park Boulevard, Cheektowaga, NY 14227, in Red’s name.

I could go on for a long time, but Red would already be upset that I wrote all this. Forgive me Red, I just couldn’t help myself. Rest in peace. Thanks for your life and your sacrifice to your country.


Anonymous said...

Great piece about a great person, Jim.

'Reminded me of my Dad, born two years earlier and who died four years ago . . . long-time union guy and a "blue-collar Democrat" who didn't care too much for the East Coast/West Coast version of the party. He also served, including at Iwo Jima, but shook his head and refused to comment any time he was asked about that experience.

Yes, we lose warped entertainers who took from this world much more than they gave, and the "People" magazine crowd has to take time off from work to get over the sorrow. True heroes die, and no one knows or cares. Memorial Day is just another excuse to eat and drink. That's a sad statement on our society, and it's wrong, but I don't see it changing.

All the best to you, your wife, and the rest of Red's friends and family. He was a true hero.

JAMorrison said...

A wonderful life and a wonderful tribute. Well done to both of you.

Chris Flynn said...

Jim... that was a lovely eulogy for Red. You did such a magnificent job bringing to light the dedication, loyalty, and sense of duty that our father's generation had. And it is so touching and sad that 1000 WWII vets pass every day. We owe them so much.

Thank you for portraying the beauty of an American Family! What a blessing they are to so many, and you are for sharing them with your readership.

My deepest sympathy to Joan, her mom and her sisters.


Buffalo Wing said...

A lovely tribute to an American hero. Red and Russert can watch the Bills now together in heaven.

Cooley's Dictum said...

Very nice, Jim -- a sensitive and poignant epitaph that, regrettably, too few of the WWII vets will receive. We owe them all a great deal of thanks for their sacrifice.

May you and your wife's grief be tempered by memories of times fonder than those of the last thirteen days. But not too quickly.

Jim of L-Town said...

Thanks, all.

Chris, your Dad was another guy who went away and did his duty and then quietly came home and raised a family. I wrote this for all of them because they get far too little credit for what they have done.

Buffalo Wing: He LOVED his Bills.

jam: My only regret is that I didn't have you to go over the copy before I posted it. (I may be free from editors, but I still need one.)

Anonymous said...

Your stunning tribute to Dad underscores the truth of the upside down world we live in today.
As you know, Dad loved you very much and enjoyed your company because you understood and appreciated the "Buffalonian" way of being. The whole family is most appreciative of your hard work - all the things you did to beatify the Uleskey compound and the love and compassion you displayed every day you supported Joan'e and helped care for both Dad and Mom in innumerable ways. Thank you again for everything you did for Dad and continue to do for all of us.
Love - your sister-in-law Patty

Jim of L-Town said...


Thanks, I am humbled by your comment, but remember I came to the Uleskey clan late so I had to do more to catch up with y'all.

Looking forward to seeing everyone again this weekend.

Love, Jim