Chuck Lauer: Quilts of Valor

I'm always moved when we recognize the men and women who go off and fight our wars for us. They richly deserve all the attention we offer them.

When I served in the Army during the Korean conflict, it was a time when civilians still saw themselves as part of the "Home Front" — watching out for our fighting soldiers. It was an attitude still intact from the big war, World War II.

Mind you, I didn't actually serve in Korea. I was trained as a battlefield medic and was on my way to the front when I was pulled off on special orders and sent to Japan, where the Army badly needed clinical psychologists, and I had education in that. So I didn't fight in Korea, but I did give a couple years of my life to my country, and I've always appreciated recognition for that. That said, I always defer to the veterans who actually saw deadly combat, were physically disabled or suffer psychologically from it.

During my service, I remember in particular visiting the New York City restaurant owned by Jack Dempsey, the famous boxer, and getting a free meal and drinks. His restaurant was on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, across from Madison Square Garden. Jack had a standing order that anyone in the military could get a meal and drinks for free, but you had to be in full uniform, and that rule was ironclad.

Jack Dempsey was one of the most storied icons of his time. He held the World Heavyweight Championship from 1919 to 1926. In 1932, he tried to make a comeback against Gene Tunney in a famous match in Chicago, but he lost and retired from the sport. Then he opened the restaurant in 1935. He was a colorful person — kind of the Mohammed Ali of his time. Born in Colorado in a family of Irish, Cherokee and Jewish roots, he became a Mormon as a boy and later supported Irish secessionists fighting against the British. He was in his late 50s when I met him at his restaurant, but he lived for many years afterwards, passing away in 1983 at age 87.

His free offer may have had something to do with his own lack of military service. Though he was 22 years old when the U.S. entered World War I, he didn't serve in it. He was criticized for this, but records showed he had attempted to enlist and had been classified as unfit for service. He was a patriot, and maybe he wanted to make up for that hole in his record.

Jack Dempsey's wasn't the only Manhattan restaurant to offer free drinks and a meal during the Korean conflict. There were quite a few others, such as Toots Shor's. In fact, Jack and Toots were great friends. There's a famous photo of the prizefighter kissing Toots on the cheek at the opening of a new Toots Shor's restaurant in 1960.

Today, we live in a different time, when there's a weaker connection between the Home Front and the wars we fight, but I still know of some restaurants here in Chicago that pick up the tab for those in uniform. It's a way to say thank you.

Now there's a wonderful new tradition of recognition, called Quilts of Valor. I must confess I knew nothing about it until I got a call from a dear friend of mine named Donna Fitzgerald, whose husband served in the Navy and died a couple of years ago.

She asked me to attend an event at a quilting show at the Sports Complex in Libertyville, Illinois, outside Chicago. She said her quilting club would like to honor me and other veterans for our military service. I wasn't sure what this meant but agreed to come.

I didn't think anything more about it until a few days before the event, and then I started to have second thoughts. It turned out that at the very time of the event, my favorite college football team would be playing a formidable conference rival, and I was seriously thinking of cancelling out on the quilters. But I reminded myself that I'd made a commitment to this lovely lady. Her husband had been a good friend of mine, and her son had been a good friend of my son in high school.

I was still feeling a little reluctant when I arrived at the event, but my reluctance quickly melted away. Several ladies at the registration desk greeted me warmly, and they took me around the hall to show the quilts on display. One woman told me she'd spent a year working on just one quilt. When I expressed my amazement, she said that's nothing — some spend years on just one quilt. I never realized the amount of patience, endurance and creativity that goes into a quilt.

When the actual ceremony was about to begin, I grabbed a seat beside 18 other veterans who were from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the Iraq and Afghanistan actions. Some of us had a hard time walking, and others were in wheelchairs.

To think I almost missed this magnificent occasion! There we were, surrounded by family, friends and quilters. Then the president of the quilters association got up to speak to us. She was so emotional she could hardly talk, and there were a lot of tears from both quilters and vets.

It turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences I've ever been part of, and it brought back a flood of memories of all the buddies I served with and our experiences together. At the end of the ceremony, each of us was presented with a beautiful quilt that the ladies had made for us. The one presented to me now covers my own bed.

It turns out that Quilts of Valor is a tradition that dates back to 2003, when a Delaware woman named Catherine Roberts made a quilt for her son, who was serving in Iraq. She wanted to make sure that he and other returning service members were welcomed home with the love and gratitude they deserved. The official Quilts of Valor Foundation website reports that more than 100,000 quilts had been awarded to service members or veterans as of August 2014.

I am astounded by the patriotism of the wonderful women who give away their quilts so willingly, after spending so much time putting them together. It's truly a marvelous way of saying thanks to members of the military for their service. 

To these quilting ladies, I want to give you a very heartfelt thank you. May the Good Lord bless you for your commitment to giving!


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