Column: Appreciating the sacrifice of a man I never met

(Courtesy photo / Kelly Mihailidis)Katie Vogiatzoglou, of Andover, places a flag on the grave of William F. Kelley, a World War II veteran who lived in North Andover.

I never met Bill Kelley. He was my older sister’s biological father, though my father raised her from a toddler. When I was old enough to realize that my sister had a different last name, I was told that she was my half-sister and that her father died in the war.

My mother, who was Pat Walsh at the time, married William F. Kelley at 19. Soon after my sister was born, he went off to war.

There was always something somber about my older sister, though at any given moment, if an animal was added to the equation she would light up. Growing up in North Andover, there were times when wounded animals would just show up at our door. I would look at a bird flapping sideways and say “Eileen, there’s someone here to see you.”

Eileen was special. I can’t say for sure she was like her father, I just know she wasn’t like us. I haven’t gotten used to calling my sister “my late sister Eileen,” as evidenced by the fact that I still pick up the phone to call her.

After becoming a “war widow,” my mother married my father, Arthur W. Smith. My dad had the good fortune of being a 90 pound weakling when he enlisted in the Army. This kept him safe, in either a kitchen or a radio booth. Bill Kelley was not so lucky.

There has always been a special place in my heart for Bill Kelley, as well as a curiosity. I have wondered what could have been and whether my mom might have been OK had he not died the way he did. That would rule out tremendous pain and suffering, as well as my sister Pattie and I.

The explanation of Eileen’s father dying in the war went with the only picture of him I ever saw, in uniform. He was a beautiful man, with sensitive blue eyes and dark hair. I regret that the picture got lost.

William F. Kelley actually died on home soil. Some of our soldiers lose their life on the battlefield, some of them leave life as they knew it on the battlefield. Both sacrifices are worthy of honor.

What Bill Kelley saw in World War II, as a part of General Patton’s 3rd Army, was unfathomable. But it was par for the course for a soldier in those days.

My Aunt Arlene, Bill’s sister, was my saving grace, seamlessly folding my sister Pattie and I into the clan. Though my beloved aunt’s bloodline ran only through Eileen, her eternal love for my mother spilled over generously to me. As I grew older, and frequently basked in the glow of her company and sage advice, I somehow also earned the right to be her confidant. Over sandwiches and cigarettes, she would entrust me with her secrets.

Eileen never spoke of her father. She would withdraw at the mere mention that he existed. My father revealed to me that, when she was 16, she went out on a date with a boy who took it upon himself to reveal to her the delicious gossip he knew -- that Eileen’s father came home from the war, became an alcoholic and, with a rope and a tree, ended his suffering in Den Rock Park.

Although the whole Lawrence police force was searching for him, it was my Uncle John, a veteran on the force, who found him. Only the mighty John (Taffy) McCann would have the strength to cradle his brother-in-law’s body down from a tree, and go home to face the two women who loved him most, with news that would strengthen one and devastate the other.

It happened the night of July 3, 1952, on the eve of Independence Day. From what my Aunt Arlene told me about her little brother, my sister Eileen was the spitting image of him — sensitive, stubborn Irish, and willing to answer the call of duty at any and all cost.

I could say that what Bill Kelley died of was the images in his mind. But reading stories penned by his brothers-in-arms, I know that all five senses are assaulted by war.

Bill Kelley was on the front line of Company A, Engineering Division. Therefore, it fell to him to bulldoze the mass graves needed for the remains of Hitler’s innocent victims.

I’ve seen snippets of newsreels and of course find it hard to take in. A film called “The Lost Airmen of Buchenwald” helps to explain the magnitude of what it was that Bill Kelley and the rest of the troops were experiencing. The sights, sounds and stench were horrific.

Word War II had an indelible effect on my family. Bill Kelley sacrificed his life for his country in a way that was treated shamefully in the day where the closest reference to post-traumatic stress disorder was being “shell shocked,” as though merely loud noises could permanently separate someone from their former self.

My mother felt responsible for her first husband’s death. She was haunted by the wish to go back in time and perceive something that would have made things turn out differently. I knew better than to ever bring the topic up with her. The only clue that alluded to Bill’s existence was my father relaying something to me that my mom said: “Does it bother you that you’re not my first?” “No,” my dad said, “because I know I’m your last.”

Despite a new husband in my dad, and two more daughters, my mother’s beautiful and delicate mind could not hold the sorrow of the past. Family history and life circumstances converged to render her ill enough to be “away” throughout most of my life.

I suppose that answers the question of where my passions and principles come from. Mental illness is a physical ailment born of irregular brain chemistry; no different than what impacts liver or kidneys. And yet, I can tell you first hand, that stigma is alive and well, and that even loved ones can bask in the glow of your presence one day and be cruel the next.

The ripples of Bill Kelley’s life have by all means touched mine. The common denominator in the complex kinship that created me is compassion -- what I chose to hear, and what I endeavor to understand.

On my own front line, there is no shortage of opportunities to stumble and fall (some more colossal than others). But with my mother’s preternatural kindness, my dad’s finesse, and the voice of my Aunt Arlene, I will always land right side up.

There was a time in the Catholic Church when they taught that suicide was a mortal sin. My Aunt Arlene spent many a day and night on her knees praying for the answer that her baby brother was in heaven, with her mother and father.

One day, while she was scrubbing the linoleum (in full hair and makeup), a single post card lilted through the mail slot and onto the floor: “It’s wonderful here. All three of us are together.” It was from a neighbor she barely knew that was in Disneyland.

It was the sign she had been praying for.

What would have been the right thing back then, to prevent Bill Kelley’s death, there’s no way to know. Is it too late to thank him for his sacrifice?

On this earth perhaps, but I’ve got a phone and a nephew (his grandson) who served in the Air Force, and hopefully a few readers who served.

For today and every day that I walk around freely, I thank them for their service.

Nancy Earley Wright is a writer and mental health advocate living in Andover.

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