Man wears father’s WWI uniform to tell veterans’ stories
PLOVER, Wis. (AP) — Ervin Shudarek looked every bit the soldier as he stood wearing the uniform on May 18 near the doors of the Copps grocery store off of Plover Road.
The uniform was like a magnet — people saw it from 20 yards away and felt compelled to approach the man who wore it. It belonged to Shudarek’s father, Philip, who wore it when he served in World War I. He was a private with Machine Gun Company 64th Infantry, 7th Division, American Expeditionary Force. He fought in France.
Ervin Shudarek cut a compelling figure, too. He’s 88 years old, fit and trim. He’s 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighs 145 pounds and wears wire-rimmed eyeglasses. It all gave him a timeless quality, as if he stepped off a period-movie set. His father’s uniform fit him perfectly. As shoppers approached, one after another, he’d catch their eyes and ask, “Can I tell you about this uniform?”
Nobody could say no to Ervin Shudarek that Friday afternoon. He handed everyone a small, handmade poppy made of tissue paper. His wife of 65 years, Alice Shudarek, also 88, stood off to the side as Ervin explained that it was National Poppy Day and the flowers symbolized the sacrifice made by all who served and died for America in all its wars. Alice stepped forward to hand the listener a little typed blurb titled “The Poppy Story.”
Ervin Shudarek is a member of the Plover American Legion Post 543, and a painted Folgers coffee container stood nearby, a slit cut in its top. As he spoke, a steady line of people dropped dollar bills and more into the container. But collecting cash the American Legion will use to help veterans wasn’t really why Ervin stood there in his father’s uniform.
The real reason was that he doesn’t want people to forget the sacrifice that all veterans made, and continue to make. Ervin on that afternoon was primarily a teacher, and he used all his charm, wit and humor to connect with everyone.
“This is fun,” he said. “You have to engage with people, because it’s very difficult to relate to strangers.”
Philip Shudarek certainly saw terrible things during World War I, Ervin told the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin , and “he was a machine gunner. He did terrible things, too.”
But when he got back home to Plover, Philip Shudarek settled down, went to work on the railroad and was the father of three sons. He died in a railroad accident, Ervin said, in August of 1942. Erv was 13 years old, and he was the youngest of the three boys.
Philip never talked about World War I, Ervin said.
“Except he did say, after Pearl Harbor, that he wished he could go, instead of his sons,” Ervin said.
Ervin’s two older brothers, Elmer and Ralph, did go into the Army. Ralph would be killed in action in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944, and would be a posthumous recipient of a Silver Star.
Later, Ervin and Elmer split up the World War I mementos their father stored in a trunk in the basement. Ervin got the uniform. Elmer took a gas mask and helmet and other items.
Ervin was too young to go to battle in World War II. After the war ended, he joined the National Guard and went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied business and took ROTC courses. He joined the regular Army as an officer after graduating from college. By then he and Alice were married, and she went with him when he was stationed in Germany.
After leaving active duty in 1956, Ervin joined the Army Reserves. All told, he was a soldier for 35 years, and he retired at a lieutenant colonel.
He and Alice raised three daughters in Plover, the town in which he grew up. He worked at Sentry Insurance and he and Alice also owned a laundromat and car wash.
The family has been steeped in the military. Their daughter Lisa Schmidt became a Navy nurse and married a fighter pilot who was an instructor in the Navy’s famed Top Gun program. Their youngest daughter Lynn Radford married a Navy SEAL and their oldest daughter Lori Dauria married an Army paratrooper.
Ervin’s grandson, Tucker Schmidt, is in ROTC, representing the fourth generation of military service, and Ervin worries for him.
The uniform has been through it all. For Ervin, the uniform represents not only his father’s service in the first World War and his brother’s death in the second, but it’s “the only connection with my family. All my family is gone now,” Ervin said.
At the Copps entrance, Ervin greeted a young dark-haired girl, Jenifer La Rock, as she walked with her family into the grocery store.
“This is the uniform my dad wore 100 years ago,” Ervin told her. “Can you imagine?”
When Jenifer donated some of her own money, Erv was pleased and impressed. “Can I give her a big hug?” he asked the girl’s mother.
“Of course, you can,” she said.
And he did.
Information from: Wausau Daily Herald Media, http://www.wausaudailyherald.com