Friends of Lake Saint Louis veteran hold hospital waltz
By ERIN HEFFERNAN
Dec. 29, 2017
ST. PETERS, Mo. (AP) — It was a seemingly small act of bravery that changed the final moments of veteran Bill Hahs' life.
It was the fall of 2015, the year after Hahs' wife of 62 years, Opal, died. The 85-year-old spent his days going to Walmart, visiting the library by himself and listening to his favorite big band music at home alone.
But in September of that year, Hahs spotted a yard sign in his Lake Saint Louis neighborhood: "Ballroom. Latin. Swing. Dance Pizazz."
He worked up the nerve to make the call.
The St. Louis-Post Dispatch reports that two years later, Hahs lay in the intensive care unit at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital. His favorite old big band music was playing again, and the room was packed with his frequent dance partners determined to give a now-dear friend a last dance in his hospital bed.
Hahs first spotted Opal McQuay on a dance floor in 1950s St. Louis.
He was in his early 20s. She was 13 years his senior.
"I think she caught his eye because she could really move," said Hahs' son, William E. Hahs Jr., who goes by Ed.
The two danced that night and married in 1952.
Bill Hahs had a nearly 30-year career in the Army. He served in the Korean War and two tours in Vietnam, where he got a Silver Star Medal for dragging a wounded soldier out of harm's way, Ed Hahs said.
Hahs and his wife moved around the world with the military, including years in Germany, but would go out dancing on Saturday nights wherever they were.
Ed Hahs remembers leaving his bedroom at night and often spotting his parents dancing together in the living room. They'd rotate around the furniture to "Skylark" by Ella Fitzgerald, "Candy" by Johnny Mercer or old classics from Dizzy Gillespie and Glenn Miller.
Bill was always a little more reserved versus Opal's outspoken friendliness — she resolved to get a job at McDonald's in her 80s, not for money but to give her the chance to interact with people.
In retirement the couple traveled the country in an RV. But they slowed down when Opal was in her 90s and showed signs of dementia. Bill was her caretaker for about five years before she died in November 2014 at age 98.
"They were in love until the moment she died," Ed Hahs said of his parents. "But I was worried about my dad after. He doesn't show a lot of emotion, but he just said, 'I can't take my own life, because I won't see her again.'"
Ed Hahs, who lives in Michigan, said he tried to convince his dad to make more connections with people.
"He was spending a lot of time alone," Hahs said.
So when his father mentioned considering ballroom dance, Ed Hahs encouraged him to call the studio.
"I just told him: 'Do it dad!'"
Bill Hahs set up his first lesson at Dance Pizazz in St. Peters in September 2015 with teacher Nikki McElvain, who co-manages the studio with her fiancé, Mike McAllister.
"I could tell he had done some dancing in the past," McElvain said. "He loved to do this one step and toe-tap move I call 'the Bill.'"
McElvain tried to push Bill. She invited him to come to weekly dance parties at the studio.
For nearly five months, he declined.
"Then one day he was like, 'Nikki tell me about those parties again,'" McElvain said. "'I think I just might like to come tonight.'"
At his first party, Bill met other people who remembered the big band era in St. Louis. He started coming to the studio several times a week for lessons and was a regular at the parties.
Ed Hahs visited his father and spotted a patch of open space in the older man's home where the floor was worn where Bill Hahs would practice his dance steps.
McElvain and Hahs agreed that he'd become her "adopted grandpa." But she continued to push her student, convincing him to try tango, even though he considered any music that wasn't big band "rock 'n' roll."
"He kept smiling when I was teaching him, so I had to stop him and say, 'No laughing, Bill. Tango is serious!'" McElvain said. "So he'd always say that to me after, 'No laughing, Nikki!'"
The dance grew on Hahs, who even brought an old fedora he dubbed his "tango hat."
McElvain eventually convinced Hahs to perform. He was reluctant, but went from a nervous performer in his first showcase, to confidently whipping off his jacket between songs to cheers from the crowd in a later show.
Hahs invited a large group of family members to come to his Dec. 2 showcase and had big plans for the performance.
"He was always very particular about what music would be the best," McAllister said. "And I think he just told everybody in his life about the show."
In late September, McElvain and McAllister noticed Hahs wasn't dancing much at a weekly party. They asked him to call them when he got home.
"When he was leaving, he mentioned he hadn't had a lot of people he'd met to care for him like that," said McAllister.
Hahs called to say he had gotten home, but the next day his nephews stopped by the studio and told McElvain and McAllister that Hahs had been admitted to the hospital with fluid entering his lungs.
The couple visited him every day for a week.
"He just kept talking about getting out and recovering in time to make the showcase," McAllister said. "He was always talking about it, and we just said, 'Yeah Bill, you'll be back in time for the show.'"
The next week, hospital staff told Hahs' family he wouldn't make it.
So his daughter-in-law Tammy Hahs asked if McElvain and McAllister would come to the hospital the next day, Oct. 11, and re-create the show he would miss.
"We weren't sure at first," McElvain said.
"Bill is a little bit stubborn," said McAllister. "He had talked nonstop about making the showcase, and we didn't want it to be a moment where he thought we were giving up on him."
The couple decided to make the dance like a party instead of a goodbye and invited all of Hahs' closest friends at the studio.
The next day, hospital staff, patients and more than a dozen of Hahs' relatives and friends stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the ICU as the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mercer and Glenn Miller filled the hospital floor.
Bill Hahs couldn't talk much or stand, but he snapped his fingers weakly, and rocked his toes to songs including "Chattanooga Choo Choo."
Ed Hahs brought his father's "tango hat" and put it on the guest of honor.
McElvain held her student's hand and swayed to the music. He moved his hand to indicate a turn.
"I couldn't look at anybody," McElvain said. "Everyone was tearing up, but I couldn't show it was bothering me. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do but I just couldn't cry in front of him because I wanted it to be a happy memory for him."
Hahs fought to say: "You and Mike" to McElvain. He wanted to watch the young couple dance and looked on from his hospital bed. Soon everyone was dancing.
"I never saw him smile that big the whole time he was there. I swear his smile was touching his ears," said Ed Hahs, his voice breaking. "It was pure joy. He always gave so much to everyone else. And . I was just glad I could give him that last gift."
Bill Hahs died the next day. He was 87.
His son returned to St. Louis with his wife to attend the Dec. 2 showcase at Dance Pizazz.
"I wanted to be where my dad loved to be," he said.
McElvain and McAllister created a memorial to Bill Hahs at the show.
"People should really admire Bill," said McElvain. "He was isolated, but he decided to go out of his comfort zone, and for the last two years, I know he had a great time. You know? He started living again."
McElvain found a note after Bill Hahs died, attached to a bouquet of flowers he sent the studio the week before he went to the hospital.
"Thank you all for 2 years of wonderful Dance," the note read. "To my outstanding instructor. Just one more time and no laughing. All my prayers. Bill."
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com