Who is your hero? Essay Contest
Presented by the Spirit of St. Louis Air Show and STEM Expo
WWII Veteran Winners
Mary Jo Pace
Jonathan Teves (5th Grade-1st Place)
Peter Smith (Tied for 2nd)
Shawn Long (Tied for 2nd)
Charlye Miller (4th Place Overall/2nd Place for 16 and Under Division)
The winning essays
William Bauer (WWII Veteran Winner)
My Hero is Al Villagran, an WW II Army Air Force Veteran. I met Al and his wife Catherine (Kay) several years ago. I was a volunteer driver for the St. Louis County Older Resident Program. They needed transportation and it was my privilege to drive. We became friends and he shared many of his life stories.
After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, like a lot of the young men at the time, Al volunteered to join the United States Army Air Force. He enlisted in 1942, in Brooklyn N.Y. He was a few months short of his eighteenth birthday, so when he filled in the application he put his age at eighteen, old enough to sign up. He wanted to be a pilot, and he passed all the testing with high grades. He was sent to San Antonio, Texas for Air Cadet Training where he learned to fly. After Cadet Training he was assigned to Hicks Field in Texas to receive training to fly the B-17. He accomplished what he set out to and completed his solo flight in a B-17. Unknown to him at the time, he had a form of epilepsy that would occur at irregular times and would cause his hands to start shaking. This happened after his flight training and he was unable to continue as a pilot. (His path to be a pilot could be one story in itself, but I'm going to continue with a story he told me and why I believe he and the other men he flew with were truly brave.)
At his next duty station he was assigned to Scott Field near St. Louis to learn to be a air craft radioman. Incidentally, while on leave and visiting St. Louis he met his wife Catherine. After graduating from radio school he was assigned to the 306th Bomb Group which was stationed in Thurleigh, England flying B-17s. There is a ten member flight crew on a B-17, on one of the first flights the tail gunner didn't show up so Al volunteered to man the tail gun. In all he flew 33 missions over Germany during 1944.
In 1983 he was interviewed for a story, I will share it with you. It is titled, “How Fortunate We Are”. In Al Villagran's words, he wants the kids to realize how fortunate we are. He wants the younger generations to know what some people have gone through to give us the freedom we have. Al told the story of his crew's first mission. He says the plane was over Munich, Germany when German Fighters shot out two of the B-17 four engines. They spun towards earth for 7000 feet with a full bomb load. Six German planes were still firing at them, but suddenly three veered off. The remaining German planes dropped their wheels a signal for the bomber to land and the Americans to surrender. The crew refused and their prayers were answered. An American fighter showed up and downed two of the German fighters and one of the gunners of the bomber crew shot down the other. Turning back towards England they reached the French coast of the English Channel and another engine failed. Air Sea Rescue was notified and ready to pull them out of the water in case the bomber had to ditch. But they managed to limp back to their base. Villagran wants the nine men on that plane remembered, as the missions continued only five of the men on that mission over Munich survived the war. One of the men, the pilot was killed before he could see his newborn son. Today only Al Villagran remains. He continues to communicate with family members of the fallen flight crew.
Al was Honorably Discharged in 1945, he received many Medals, most recently the French Legion of Honor Medal in 2019. He was the President of the 8th Air Force Historical Society. Al did get a commercial pilots license after the war, but he gave up flying to raise a family. Al and Kay were very successful owning their own business. They celebrate their 77th wedding anniversary this year.
Why is Al my hero? For someone so young, he chose to volunteer for a dangerous job to ensure the Freedoms we value today. Also, as a Veteran myself, I have total respect and I honor those who volunteer and give so much in the face of danger. Al is a brave man and very humble.
Al and Kay still live in Chesterfield, he will be 98 years old this October, with the Covid Virus they have been unable to enjoy life outside their home since March of 2020. They enjoy their family gatherings and rely on their Faith in God.
I am lucky to have met Al and Kay. They never give up and are proud to be Americans.
Mary Jo Pace (WWII Veteran Winner)
Our family would like to nominate Corporal William J. Dees, a decorated WWII Army Paratrooper, who has several recorded jumps in the South Pacific Campaign. Although there are many Vets deserving of this honor, we believe that Bill Dees is the most deserving. He signed up to defend this country in 1942 and has done so through his actions and in everything he has done thoughtout his life.
Bill is the Patriarch of our family; a loving husband (now widowed), father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He is coming up on his 100th birthday on December 24th and it would be a great thrill for him to participate in this flight. Since he was discharged in 1946, he has been a great representative of all Vets across our nation; participating in the VFW programs, Vets Roll and an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Two years ago, he traveled to New Orleans with his grandson to spend three days touring the WWII museum. As a Vet, it has always been important to him to stand front and center to show the youth of our nation the struggles of Vets, teach us history and be an example to others.
After years of dedicating his life to his family, he joined FEMA to assist those suffering catastrophes throughout the United States. Bill also worked at polling places for many years, eventually becoming an election Judge.
Bill currently lives alone in his home in Ballwin. He has many friends and an active social life. When his wife passed away, Bill was invited to join the West County Senior organization for widowed and divorced seniors. This is a very active group (pre-pandemic) and Bill participates in everything offered: bridge, poker, dinner dances, bocce ball tournaments, theatre, etc. At their monthly meetings, speakers and authors are featured or there is a trivia contest which is made up of questions by Bill Dees. He does all the research and enjoys passing on information about our community, state and country. The other members (many considerably younger) often tell our family that Bill is an inspiration to them all!
My father is a great example of how to approach life, treat others, be a family man and he deserves this honor! Thank you for your consideration,
Mary Jo Pace
On behalf of the Dees family, Pace family, Metzger family, Hardcastle family
Jonathan Teves (5th Grade-1st Place)
My hero is LCDR James Haley. LCDR Haley is a Blue Angel who helps inspire individuals all over our country to join the U.S. Navy and achieve their goals. The reason LCDR Haley inspires me is because he is kind, professional and enjoys flying like me. He is very smart and went to the Naval Academy like I want to do. He is very brave, looking death in the eye every day by flying dangerous aircraft. He is also a really great aviator.
In 2019, I went to the St. Louis Air Show as I do every year with my family. I love going because one day I want to become a naval aviator. We sat and watched the show until the end when the Blue Angles appeared. They took off in formation and performed an outstanding show, pulling up to 8 G’s.
About 20 minutes after the show they announced that the Blue Angles would be signing autographs for fans near the flight line. Despite the heat, we went over there and waited for their van. Finally, their van arrived and they stepped out. I was amazed by how alert they looked after doing a grueling 25 minutes of G pulling. They started walking toward the crowd and LCDR Haley walked directly to me. I was wearing a flight suit also. I asked him my questions and he smiled and answered all of them and took pictures with me.
As we drove home I was astonished that I had talked to a Blue Angel. A few days later, I wrote him a letter. I told him all about the air show and what it meant to meet him, and also sent him some pictures of the two of us. Surprisingly, he sent me a poster with all of the Blue Angels autographs and my name on it. Ever since then I had wondered if he still remembers me. Recently, The Blue Angels performed in Florida and my uncle saw it. He also met with the pilots and talked to LCDR Haley and he said he still remembers me.
After all of this, I have been deeply inspired by him and will continue my dream of going to the Naval Academy like he did. I will work hard to achieve my goals and become a naval aviator. I hope to meet him again in the fleet. I hope I can be a hero someday to kids the way LCDR Haley is a hero to me.
Peter Smith (Tied for 2nd)
My hero is my late father, Walter William Smith. Dad was born in 1913 in the small farming community of Avondale, CO. He rode a horse to the one-room schoolhouse where he and his older siblings attended class. He paid his way through the University of Colorado by being a waiter at one of the University's fraternities. When invited to become a member himself, he agreed on the condition that he could continue his job as a waiter there.
Later, just before the start of WWII, Dad met and married my Mom. She had been married previously, had a three year old son and few resources. That made her someone who came to the marriage with some real "baggage." Without hesitation, he accepted her little boy as his own and raised him with the exact same love and care he showed my brother and me when we came along a few years later.
When WWII began, Dad enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and was trained as a pilot. Dad was assigned duty ferrying various types of aircraft to wherever they were needed. He never saw combat but willingly put himself at risk every time he flew a mission. Like many men of his generation, Dad never talked about the war or his role in it. He was grateful to have survived and saddened that so many others didn't. Later, when I learned to fly, I carried his pilot's wings with me on every flight. Dad's wings were also on board when his grandson, my son, began his flight training,
My father worked very hard and was happy and successful in his career. He worked for the same firm, Aetna Life & Casualty Company, for sixty-two years. I don't think he ever missed a day of work. His personal credo seemed to be "never explain, never complain." No matter the circumstances, no matter how challenging or unpleasant the task, he just got about the business of doing it. During his ninety-three years of life, Dad was liked and respected by everyone who knew him. He treated each person he met with equal courtesy and genuine interest.
Mom and Dad were together for nearly fifty years until her death. His last words to her were, "Sweetie, I've loved you since the first moment I saw you." I've never forgotten that.
In summary, my Dad was not famous for any unique skill, specific accomplishment, or act of bravery. He was just a man who loved his God, his country, his family and his work. He did his best by them all, with a smile on his face. If it can be said that I have done anything worthwhile with my life, the credit belongs to my Dad, my hero, Walter William Smith.
Shawn Long (Tied for 2nd)
My wife, Julie Long, is my hero. Not only is she an absolutely phenomenal mother & wife, she is a patrol officer for the city of O'Fallon (MO) and senior DARE officer for the department and the Fort Zumwalt school district. Everyone in O'Fallon knows 'officer Julie', she has spent the best part of the last decade making DARE fun/exciting/interactive for her students and many that have graduated the program years ago continue to keep in touch even into college and beyond. But she does so much more than just DARE instruction, in the 8 schools she is responsible for (yes I said 8) she takes a vested interest in her students and the schools in general, participating in fund raisers DARE related or not, and stretching her time and monetary budget well beyond what the city pays for to help underprivileged and at risk kids. I would only be guessing, but I would reckon a third of the time and resources she dedicates to these schools and their students is not on city time or from their budget, it's from her heart...that's why Officer Julie Long - O'Fallon PD is my hero.
Original contest info and rules below - contest now closed
Win a chance for you and your hero to fly on a B-29 Superfortress!
The Spirit of St. Louis Air Show and STEM Expo wants to honor our heroes by hearing about yours! Tell us about who your hero is and the impact they have had on you and our community.
Be sure to include:
- Who is your hero?
- What makes them your hero?
- What contributions have they made to our community or society?
Submit your writing of no more than 500 words using the form below by midnight on May 31, 2021. Four winners will win two tickets each to take flight with their hero* on a B-29 Superfortress. (*If your hero can’t attend, don’t worry! Winners will still receive two tickets for this flight.) Winners will be notified by June 11th and take flight on July 10th at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport.
This contest is open to all age 10 years and older. Winners under the age of 16 will need to be escorted by an adult.
Family members of Spirit of St. Louis Air Show executive committee and key volunteers are not eligible. Winners will complete a liability waiver (parent signature required if under 18) prior to flying. Submissions are the property of Spirit of St. Louis Air Show and may be used for promotional purposes.