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Images of gratitude: Photographer discovers saying thanks can take a lifetime

Published: Monday, Nov. 11, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Nov. 11, 2013 1:22 p.m. CST
Caption
(Submitted by Bill Delp)
An emotional Earl Delp of Mount Carroll listens while a tribute letter written by his son, Jim, is read during the flight home from a Quad Cities Honor Flight trip to Washington in September 2012.
Caption
(Submitted by Bill Delp)
This is a smaller version of the photo compilation by Bill Delp that is now displayed by the Quad Cities Honor Flight group.
Caption
(Submitted by Bill Delp)
Earl Delp (from left), Bill Delp, and Lester Cordes pose for a photo while sightseeing on their Honor Flight trip.

SAVANNA – Bill Delp was just a young boy at the time, but the memories of a smoky pool hall in his small hometown have stayed with him a lifetime.

Delp, now 54, can still recall time spent with family at O’Canavan’s pub in downtown Savanna, next to the VFW.

“I was only about 4, 5, 6 years old, but I’ve always had vivid memories of all the vets in similar military hats shooting pool after they came back from war,” Delp said. “Back then war was just something you saw on TV. I didn’t realize the magnitude of it until I was older.”

The pool hall is now closed, but a boy’s first vision of the citizen soldier that was born there continues to evolve. It eventually reached a point in which his need to say thanks to those who have served has become a driving force in his life, professionally and personally.

“One day I realized that these people aren’t John Wayne,” Delp said. “They are everyday people that go off and do this stuff.”

But as difficult as war is, what really amazes Delp is that the majority come home, find ways to put their experiences behind them, and resume their lives.

“It really blows my mind how they are able to just come back and live their lives,” Delp said. “I have so much respect for that, and for years I struggled to find a way to express that.”

Expressing things for Delp oftentimes involves a camera. A professional photographer with his own studio, he still has his first camera – one his mom got for selling Avon products when he was in junior high.

His camera would later become instrumental in finding a creative outlet for his gratitude. But before that, he would write a poem he called “A Soldier’s Sacrifice” that would become his tribute. A tribute that was once very private, but is now being read by more people every day.

The poem finally found paper in 2004, after many failed attempts. Many years would go by before anyone else saw it.

“It took only minutes after I actually started writing,” Delp said. “But it was to those people, not the world, so I buried it in a drawer.”

In the drawer his heartfelt tribute stayed – until its true purpose became clearer.

A life-changing trip

In the meantime, Delp had decided to put his name on a waiting list to go on an Honor Flight trip. He couldn’t go the first time he was contacted, but finally plans were in place for him to go on the Quad Cities Honor Flight trip in September 2012.

Delp would serve as a guardian for two area vets, World War II vet Earl Delp, 86, of Mount Carroll, and Lester Cordes, 83, of rural Sterling, a Korean War vet.

Earl Delp, a distant relative of Bill, had tried to go on the trip before and had just about given up on the idea.

“My wife and I had booked a trip before and she got sick,” he said. “I had about given up on going, but she kept after me to go.”

Earl was one of only 14 WWII vets among the group of nearly 100 on the trip.

Earl says that because he was an only child working on a farm, he probably could have gotten a deferment, but chose not to pursue that avenue.

“I went in right after high school; when you’re 18 you think you’re invincible,” Earl said.

He spent 2 years in Germany, where he met his wife of 65 years, Eva. They were married overseas and the brave young bride made the trip back to the States alone. The military arranged for her to meet her new in-laws in Carroll County.

“One more stripe and we could have come home together on that boat,” Earl recalls. Luckily, Earl came home safely one month later.

Lester Cordes, 83, served on the front lines in Korea for 17 months. After he was discharged, resuming his life meant two things: marrying the woman he loved and getting back to work on the family farm in rural Sterling.

“I got discharged and asked Fern ‘what do you think about getting married?’” Lester said. “We were married a month later, and have been together 60 years.”

Lester said he’d always wanted to go on the Honor Flight trip, but after all these years, he thought his service was all but forgotten.

Enter Bill Delp. The letter, tucked away in a drawer for 8 years would find its place among the raw emotions of an Honor Flight trip.

The Washington whirlwind

The Honor Flight experience is packed into a less than one day time frame. The group gathers at 5 a.m., flies out to Washington at 7 a.m., and returns to the airport at 10:30 p.m.

Bill Delp’s camera was ready for the frenetic pace. From among the many photos he took on the trip, five of his favorites were put together for a large 3-by-7-foot compilation image that was later given to the Quad Cities Honor Flight group.

A particularly emotional scene was captured during what is called “mail call” on the flight home.

Earl Delp, described by Bill as a “quiet and serious guy,” is shown while listening to the reading of a letter his son Jim Delp wrote. Earl had initially said no when asked if he wanted it read aloud, but then gave a nod to Bill indicating he had a change of heart.

“I broke down and bawled on the plane; I was quite touched,” Earl said.

Earl said another son, Richard, had first been approached about writing something, but he thought Jim could express their feelings better because he had served in the Army National Guard for 30 years.

Like many military families, Jim said, there wasn’t much talk about his father’s experiences at home.

“I really hadn’t expressed how I felt before,” said Jim, now of Darlington, Wis. “I wanted to put down on paper how I felt about him. Sometimes it’s too late before we do it.”

Jim believes things were much harder for his father during WWII.

“For me, I was already in a leadership position and much older when I went to the Gulf,” he said. “I had a much better idea of what I was going into. He was just out of high school, not knowing what he’d face.”

Communication was also very different.

“I had phones everywhere,” Jim said. “Family is so important to dad, and he was completely separated from them.”

Earl, who was an only child, said the letter made him think about his parents.

“I went in right after high school, and then I didn’t think about what my folks were feeling and how it affected them,” he said.

The top photo in the compilation shows Earl and Lester together at the WWII Memorial. The bottom photo is of a vet saluting the memorial wall where every star represents 100 casualties. A military nurse Delp knows only as “Lois from Galesburg” is shown signing in at the WWII Women’s Memorial. And second from the top is Bill’s poem with the image of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the background.

Lester said he had 21 letters – some from family and some from schoolchildren he never knew. He later received a package in the mail from Bill of more than 80 photos. His oldest daughter, Vicki, gathered the letters from his family.

“The letters brought tears to my eyes; it was an emotional day,” Lester said. “It was the most wonderful experience of my life. On Veterans Day, I’ll look at the flag and feel honored I could serve.”

Bill said his girlfriend and partner at the studio, Rhonda Lampe, has put in a lot of time to help get his images ready. He is still busy giving shots of the poem to schools, and to organizations including VFWs for military funerals. All of the Honor Flight participants received an 8-by-10 of the poem photo.

But he’s discovering that his gratitude may never reach an endpoint. He’s now putting together individual soldier profiles for a traveling exhibit. Each profile will include letters from loved ones – because now he knows why some letters shouldn’t stay in drawers forever.

A Soldier's Sacrifice

NEVER THE WARRIOR

SIMPLY CITIZEN SOLDIER

THE FEW CALLED UPON TO PRESERVE

THAT WHICH WE TREASURE

AND ENJOY

THEY DESIRE TO BE ONE OF THE FORTUNATE

STAY HOME, LIVE ON

BUT STILL THEY GO

THEY STAND TALL, THEY STAND PROUD

AND THEY GO

GOD HOW THEY MUST FEAR

THAT WHICH LIES BEFORE THEM

WITH FAMILY & SECURITY FAR BEHIND

A BROTHERHOOD IS BORN

PROTECT THOSE TO YOUR LEFT

AND THOSE TO YOUR RIGHT

NONE EVER ABANDONED

THE FORTUNATE ARE RETURNED TO THOSE THEY LOVE

THE FALLEN ARE GONE

BUT TO GOD

GONE – NEVER FORGOTTEN

STAND HUMBLE IN THEIR PRESENCE

YOU WILL NEVER KNOW

THAT WHICH THEY CAN NEVER ERASE.

With deep respect,

Bill Delp

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