By Don Terry
A retired hospital chaplain, Ray Deabel speaks at 80 or so funerals a year, many for fellow military veterans. That is an honor. But sometimes only a handful of mourners show up. That is a shame. At the service for one World War II veteran a few years ago, only the chaplain and the funeral home director were there to say thank you and goodbye.
“I’ve seen some lonely and sad situations,” Mr. Deabel said.
The Jan. 28 service for a nearly destitute old soldier named Harold Lewis was not one of them. A village of veterans made sure of that.
As the sound of taps and the crackle of rifle fire drifted through the barren trees and over the snow-covered grounds of the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Joliet, more than 35 veterans stood at attention and saluted Mr. Lewis’s flag-draped coffin. Most of them had not heard of Mr. Lewis until 24 hours before his Friday morning funeral with military honors.
“We bury nothing but heroes out here,” Mr. Deabel told the gathering. “They’re all heroes because they said yes to their country.”
Mr. Lewis, 79, an Army veteran of the Korean War era, died, apparently by his own hand, on Dec. 17 in his cell-size room in a dreary men’s hotel on South Clark Street. He had lived there for the last 20 years. For most of that time, according to the hotel manager, Michael Bush, Mr. Lewis kept mostly to himself.
“He liked to read and watch old movies,” Mr. Bush said. “He loved John Wayne.”
Over the years, Mr. Lewis had few, if any, visitors except for a small group of veterans, led by a former Marine, Jim Proffitt, 61, and Jack Picciolo, 67, who served with an Army artillery unit in Vietnam.
Every Sunday, they delivered sandwiches to Mr. Lewis and other struggling residents of the hotel. It is part of the veterans’ regular route as they drive through downtown distributing food and clothing to the homeless.
Mr. Lewis rarely left his room. The veterans would deliver sandwiches to his door, which Mr. Lewis cracked open to take the food and exchange a few words.
Mr. Proffitt was delivering sandwiches to the hotel on Dec. 19 when he learned that Mr. Lewis had died two days earlier. Mr. Proffitt notified the Cook County medical examiner’s office that night that he and his friends would make sure their fellow veteran had a dignified burial, if Mr. Lewis had no next of kin.
“He might have been down and out, but he’s one of us,” Mr. Proffitt said. “He’s a veteran.”
Mr. Lewis’s body lay in the morgue for a month as medical examiner employees searched for relatives. They found no one and called Mr. Proffitt, who called Mr. Picciolo, who called Ed Tylka, a member of Mr. Picciolo’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Lockport and the director of the Ridge Funeral Home in Chicago.
Mr. Tylka picked up Mr. Lewis’s body and donated a coffin. Mr. Picciolo supplied dress slacks, a white shirt and a sport coat for Mr. Lewis to wear. The jacket was too big. “He only weighed something like 80 pounds,” Mr. Picciolo said. The funeral home supplied a jacket that fit, along with socks and underwear. The Veterans Administration paid for the burial plot.
Last Friday morning, five cars followed the hearse for the hourlong journey to the cemetery. When the procession arrived, more than 25 cars were waiting. News of the final salute had spread through the veterans community by word of mouth and an article in The Southtown Star.
“When we pulled in there, I couldn’t believe all of those cars,” Mr. Picciolo said. “We thought it would just be me, Jim and maybe a couple of other guys.”
Waiting to say goodbye to Mr. Lewis were members of the American Legion, the Marine Corps League, the Patriot Guard Riders, a couple of V.F.W. posts and the Friday unit of the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery Memorial Squad, volunteers who conduct military honors.
Friday is the busiest day at Lincoln. Last year, said the assistant squad leader, Mike Mahoney, 64, a Navy veteran, the Friday squad conducted 670 funerals, mostly for World War II and Korean War veterans.
A squad member, Bob Moore, 77, an Army veteran, presented the American flag that had draped Mr. Lewis’s coffin to Mr. Proffitt and repeated words he had spoken hundreds of times:
“On behalf of a great and grateful nation, the president of the United States, and the armed forces, it is an honor to present you this flag, for the honorable service your loved one provided his country.”
As the mourners began to leave, a volley of 21 shots echoed in the distance.