Today, October 30th, would have been Dwight Hoelscher’s 83rd birthday so I’m celebrating and reflecting on the 43 years when he was my Dad.
I don’t want to confuse my friends who saw me post a month ago about the death of my Father in Vietnam 50 years ago. You see, I have a Father and a Dad and I long ago emptied out the contents of my bosom and put a reserved sign there for both Tom and Dwight and that’s where they have resided for many years.
How they came to know each other and become friends is a cool story but before I take you there, let me say that I am proud that each man had the stature and character to be accepted by the other as a friend.
Dwight’s mother, Erna, was born in 1898 and raised in New Haven, Missouri, a small farming community along the Missouri River about 40 miles west of St. Louis. She was a Freitag and was born on the farm and in the house that is now owned by David Freitag.
New Haven is where my mother grew up and the community is a town of neighbors. One story I romanticize and make out to be much more than it was has a basis in truth.
One of Dwight’s cousins, Duthiel Borcherding was a waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator when it was shot down over Holland and he with the other crew members became POW’s for the next 15 months until the war ended.
Anyway, I put myself in Dutch’s shoes and can see him being mustered out of the Army in St. Louis and then on the bus ride home gazing out at the fields, smelling the rich, freshly plowed soil, corn a foot high along this stretch and summer wheat getting started and then, just smell the alfalfa.
He doesn’t know what to expect when he gets to his bus stop in New Haven. It’s not even a depot or a bus station where he gets off. The driver pulls in to the Skelly Gas station owned by Dwight’s Uncle, Louis Hoelscher, just long enough for Duthiel to grab his suitcase and step out of the bus where there’s just one person to greet his on his return from that terrible war and those awful stalags. That one person was a little tow headed girl, Marilyn Held, two months into her nine year and she greeted him with an enthusiasm fit for a returning veteran and POW.
So Dwight has a deep connection to New Haven, Missouri what with so much family there; all the aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents to visit when his family came in from Mascoutah, Illinois and it was during one of those visits later that summer that the 13 year old boy who was to become my stepfather met or became aware of the 9 year old girl who was to become my mother.
Let’s speed things along and move forward to about 1960 in Arizona. After finishing high school in Mascoutah, Dwight moved with his family to Long Beach, California, graduated from Whittier College and then went to seminary school and eventually graduated from Claremont School of Theology. Mom said God dragged poor Dwight kicking and screaming to seminary school but I think she was kidding.
Anyway, Dad’s strong suit was as a youth minister and he was installed as Youth Minister at the First Congregational Church in Prescott, Arizona. It was about this time (1960) when Marilyn, already married to my father, Tom Tolliver, and with three small children moved with her young family to Scottsdale, Arizona so Tom could finish his engineering degree at Arizona state University. Tom was also a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and was going to school on the Air Force’s dime.
With all this on their plate Tom and Marilyn had enough left over to volunteer to work with their church youth group at their home church and with the Northern Arizona Youth conference.
That’s what brought the three inmates of this story together again, for the very first time.
“So where are you from in Missouri?” Dwight asked Tom. “Oh you wouldn’t know the place. I grew up in the county seat of Franklin County,” my father replied.
“Oh, I know about Union, Missouri,” my dad told my father, “So who’s your wife,” he continued.
“Well that’s the daughter of the Doctor for New Haven, Missouri.”
“Are you telling me that that is Marilyn Held?” Dad asked…And that’s how they all got to be good friends.
I first met Dwight in New Haven on the Fourth of July, 1965. My father was going to ship out to Vietnam in a month or so and Dwight stopped by while on his way to an exchange program that would keep him in Germany until October. He tried to talk my father out of going to Vietnam.
“Don’t go Tom. I have a bad feeling about this war. It’s not right. You could resign your commission and fly for an airline or somewhere.” (Actually he probably couldn’t since he wasn’t rated for multi-engined big stuff)
And the rest is history so they say. They said their goodbye’s and exactly ten weeks later my father, Tom was killed in a freak accident as a passenger on a C-130 transport plane taking him to his duty station.
It’s hell for a nine year old boy to lose his father so suddenly and so tragically and it’s hell being a single man of 36 taking on a wife and instant family of four kids aged 13 to 3. Especially when the former nine year old is now the 13 year old and hormones and puberty and all that good shit starts kicking in.
It wasn’t the Brady Bunch, I’ll tell you that much even though we did add a fifth kid to our asylum.
So let me tell you about my Dad. He was a great youth minister first of all and there are a number of my Facebook friends that were there 45 years ago. Our high school and junior high youth groups had Sex Education classes for about 4 weeks. We had encounter groups on racism. We had cultural interchanges going deep into the Navajo Reservation to a boarding school where we got from them much more than we could presume to give them.
Then he was called to our church in Fresno not as an Associate,or youth minister but as the Senior Pastor. Actually he was the only pastor and he stepped to the plate and hit it out of the park. At least in my opinion he did.
If you’re thinking of becoming a minister because you think they only have to work one hour a week go become a ditch digger or something with extreme manual labor; it’ll be easier. He was a first string starter now and he still visited the sick and the elderly regularly like clockwork and if he had to be there for someone…well, ask Doug Link about that.
I mentioned it was hell losing my father but what I realized with my Dad was a sense and appreciation of continuity. You see, Dad was confirmed by his father who was a minister. In fact, his father was his ordaining minister. I like that Dwight was my confirming minister. I like that he and my father were friends. I like the connection between us and New Haven. I love that we were both Cardinals fans and I’m glad the Cardinals were the winners of the last World Series of his life.
After we lost mom in 1992 there were a number of years when tax season was over and we’d take off around the first of May and go on road trips together for three or four weeks at a time as Dad and son and as friends and at times I was privileged to serve as a peer and clear up some questions that were bothering him.
I always believed a minister often is bothered by a doubt or a question of whether the seeds he cast about him in his ministry ever took root and flourished. I got to spend the rest of his life assuring him that they did.
Happy birthday Dad. I love you and I miss you.