Why The Greatest Generation is Great
December 21, 2012
Rarely does one meet an individual with a heartbeat so strong for humanity and a “what’s in it for others” attitude. His smile engages and his countenance ignores advancing years. He glows with goodwill, projecting unbounded love for others—a grand example of “The Greatest Generation.”
I met him recently. You may think he’s a giant Texan—one with life’s papers neatly arranged into chapters, ready for sainthood.
And, you’d be wrong. He stands 5-6 and never weighed more than 165. He lied twice at age 15 to join the Navy, embraced overcoming as a “way of life” and never considered himself extraordinary.
But he is. In Galveston, where he’s lived 70 of his first 85 years, Eddie Janek is beloved. On the streets, fellow motorists “honk hellos”; in stores, owners and custodians—and all in between—stop what they’re doing to greet “Mr. Eddie.”
His arrivals include more than “howdies.” Friends want to hug a guy who has served them far longer than most know. Shucks, even short memories recall his efforts for the common good during his 16 years as a county commissioner. And men whose hair is starting to gray remember life lessons learned from his coaching Little League, Pony League and American Legion baseball teams for 34 years.
Those closest to him know how circumstances greatly altered his course just over a decade ago. That’s when dreaded Alzheimer’s laid claim to his beloved wife, Doris, and that’s when he dedicated the bulk of his time to her home health care.
It’s just the way this man is wound. Words of the poet Emerson fit best: “When duty whispers down, ‘thou must,’ the youth replies ‘I can’.”
Duty first “whispered down” to Eddie in 1942. A fatherless child of the depression, he spent most of his youth on a “hand-me-down” Hill County farm near West.
His “fib of being 15” was found out, and the Navy sent him home. Undeterred, Eddie altered his Catholic confirmation records, and he was in “Navy whites” again.
Perhaps the doctor who performed his Navy physical exam deserves a medal; had his findings been recorded more accurately, Janek wouldn’t have been accepted.
Somehow, his weight and height—one inch over five feet and 98 pounds—were entered as 5-2 and 105, thus meeting minimal requirements.
“The Navy didn’t seem to care that I stuttered,” Eddie laughed. “And I still do.”
The military provided many “firsts,” including first uses of tooth brushes, telephones, light switches—and, uh, commodes.
During four years in the Pacific, including landings at Leyte and Peleliu, he saw death up close. Strong in his memory are sounds of comrades praying at night for God’s protection in the coming day.
Janek rightly treasures a sealed, glass-covered box that contains Presidential Unit Citations from the U.S., the Philippines and Korea—and 18 other awards. They were presumably lost forever when Hurricane Ike ravaged the first floor of his high-rise home.
Survivor of two wars, a stroke, a heart overhaul and a blood disease, Eddie remains upbeat— cherishing his wife, three sons and six grandchildren and lovingly tending his roses.
He’s grateful to his son, Dr. Kyle Janek, who, as a State Senator in 2001, wrote legislation providing high school diplomas for WW II participants. Eddie proudly marched across the stage in Galveston where 58 were so honored—one posthumously, three in wheelchairs and two on crutches.
He also is grateful to Texas A&M for the safe return of his medals! A few weeks after the 2008 storm, some A&M people, cleaning up Pelican Island five miles across the bay from Janek’s home, found the muddied box. A&M President R. Bowen Loftin called Eddie about the find. The medals are again proudly displayed in the Janek home.
Upon meeting Eddie recently, we were inspired by his optimism and patriotism. Friends aren’t surprised that his most recent project benefited a Galveston resident who needed funds for sight-restoring eye surgery. He wrote a check, then 53 letters to friends. Within days, $42,000 was contributed, and the surgery is scheduled.
He’s well on the way to restoration of flood-ravaged memorabilia. Eddie is at Mass on Saturday afternoons, and attends family and naval reunions from time to time.
Usually, though, he’s at home. Doris needs him there.