A couple of weeks ago, Tim Wolcott read a story in this space about an 82-year-old Korean War veteran named George Whelan who died homeless and was buried with full military honors by people who never met him.
Wolcott, who works as a nurse at Cape Cod Hospital, had served as an Army medic in Korea in the 1970s and there was something about that story, a veteran dying alone, with no family around him, that moved him to action.
“It was like that line from Randy Pausch’s last lecture,” Wolcott said. “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”
Wolcott had taken a genealogy course at Boston University, so he was prepared to go online and search for Whelan’s relatives. On ancestry.com, he found Charlene Tobey, one of Whelan’s cousins.
“I was a little wary at first,” said Tobey, who lives on the North Shore. “But I came to realize Tim was genuine.”
Tobey reached out to a cousin, who directed her to Gerry Gagnon, George Whelan’s nephew, who lives in New Hampshire. He, in turn, directed her to his mother, June Gagnon, who is George Whelan’s only sibling.
“We didn’t call him George,” June Gagnon told me from her home in Maryland. “We called him Norman, his middle name.”
June Gagnon is 87 years old. She hadn’t seen her brother in many years. She said her father pushed her brother into the Army when he was 17. He was in the service for three years before coming back to Dorchester, to work with his father in an auto body shop.
She said her brother was married, had a daughter, but the marriage broke up 50 years ago and his former wife took the child and moved west, to Arizona, she thinks.
Nearly 40 years ago, he had gone up to Maine and helped his sister’s husband build a log house on Boothbay Harbor. He went back to Dorchester with enough cash to pay a year’s rent up front.
Gerry Gagnon said his uncle suffered for years with post-traumatic stress from the war, self-medicating.
“He would work, save up money, then drink it all away,” he said. “That cycle continued until his mother died, then he just disappeared. We couldn’t find him. I walked all over the city, looking for him. We feared he was in a pauper’s grave.”
When Whelan died Jan. 25 at Boston Medical Center, someone from the city’s veterans services office called Bill Lawler at the funeral home he and his brother Bob run in West Roxbury and Lawler agreed to bury Whelan.
Lawler drove Whelan’s casket out to the Massachusetts Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon, where two young soldiers stood at either end of the casket during a short, dignified service. An honor guard composed of local Vietnam veterans fired three volleys into the air.
Bill Lawler stood in as Whelan’s family, accepting the folded American flag and a packet of three spent cartridges from the honor guard. Lawler tucked the flag and cartridges away, hoping that some day he’d be able to give them to someone in Whelan’s family.
That happened the other day, when Charlene Tobey drove down to West Roxbury and embraced Bill Lawler.
This week, Charlene Tobey will give the flag and the cartridges to Gerry Gagnon.
“This started as a story about someone who died alone, separated from his family,” Charlene Tobey said. “But it has ended up bringing us as a family together.”
Charlene Tobey had never met or spoken to Gerry Gagnon or his mother before. Now they are planning a get-together which will inevitably bring them to Section 4, Row I, Grave 483 of the veterans cemetery in Winchendon, where George Norman Whelan is buried.
This all has brought an enormous sense of peace to June Gagnon.
“Norm had a hard life,” she said. “When I found out these people had stepped up to not just bury him, but bury him with great respect, I thought, he deserved that respect, he really did.”