The Value of Connections

Everyone who strives to succeed at a career in business learns that networking is a critical factor to that success. For me, Rotary has been a fun and effective way to build strong relationships in the community that continue to benefit not only my business but also me personally. One of the wondrous things about Rotary and networking is that you never know where your connections may lead. Sometimes you feel called to a place.

In World War II, my dad was a dive bomber pilot off the carrier Essex. He flew an SB2C Helldiver and was awarded the Navy Cross for scoring a direct hit on the Japanese battleship Yamato, the largest battleship ever built. Like a lot of combat veterans from that era he never liked to talk about his experiences. Except with Dave. Whenever we would visit, my son, Dave, as a little boy would run to see Grampa at his old oak roll-top desk because he knew he would get a piece of candy. There they would sit, Dave in his lap, and my father would take out his cruise book from the war and show Dave the pictures and tell the stories. Dave adored his grandfather and mourned him when he died in 1987. 

Shortly after, at the age of 11, Dave began taking flying lessons paid for with his paper route money. On graduating from high school he earned an appointment to the Air Force Academy. He was assigned to fighters and soloed in a T-38 jet trainer but for medical reasons finished his career as a communications officer. An accomplished modeler, Dave built a model of the Essex and a model of the Helldiver with his grandfather’s tail number and squadron markings as they were on the day of his mission to the Yamato. As part of the display he included a photograph from the cruise book of my dad with his flight engineer and gunner along with a brief write-up of the significance the models have for him. The display won several awards in competition and was featured in a blog for model builders. One day, Dave received an e-mail from another modeler who had seen the pictures online and said “I think the gunner in the picture is my uncle, William Schaeffer.” Dave asked for and received the contact information for William Schaeffer in Wyomissing and sent it to me. I called the phone number several times and left messages on a machine with no greeting that went unanswered. A year passed.

I had grown up the third generation of a family in Marlboro, Massachusetts and my career ultimately took me to West Chester, Pennsylvania. When I decided to own a FASTSIGNS franchise the Pottstown territory was available. Being new to Pottstown, I joined Rotary as way to build connections in the community and I have enjoyed every minute I have been associated with the club. The spring after I joined, my wife, Beverly, accompanied me to a Rotary family picnic where I introduced her to Mike McCarthy, a long-time Rotarian. “Bev, I remember when I met Mike, because the very first meeting I attended was on Veterans Day and the veterans who could wore their uniforms. Mike’s Navy uniform still fit perfectly and it reminded me of Dad.”

Mike asked what my father did and I said he was a dive bomber pilot off the carrier Essex in World War II.

“How interesting,” Mike said. “When I was on assignment to the Japanese Naval Academy I toured the Naval Museum with some of the Japanese midshipmen and there was a picture of the Essex as it was being struck by a kamikaze.  I told them that the picture had a lot of meaning for me because my uncle was aboard the Essex when that happened.  They were embarrassed by this, of course, and averted their eyes.”

“That’s amazing, Mike.  My dad was on board that day.  Maybe they knew each other.  What did your uncle do?”

“He was a gunner on one of those dive bombers.  They called it the…”.  He paused to recall.

“It was the SB2C Helldiver.  They called it the ‘Beast’.  That’s the plane my dad flew.  What was your uncle’s name?”

“They called him Shaef.”

“William J. Schaeffer.  Your uncle was my dad’s gunner.”

The three of us stood there, silent, stunned.

Mike told us that his uncle had moved from Wyomissing to Keystone Villa, an assisted living facility in Douglassville, not five minutes from my business. Mike made arrangements for us to meet his uncle there. Several of Billy Schaeffer’s children and grand children made the trip up from Washington and Baltimore for the occasion along with Mike. My brothers and a nephew made the trip from Massachusetts and Connecticut. Dave sent his award-winning model of the Helldiver as a gift to Mr. Schaeffer and spoke to him by phone. We were able to spend the afternoon talking with a man who had served with my father during a period of his life that had been very little known to us. We felt especially close to him that day.

Mike tells me his uncle continues to do well at Keystone Villa.  He shows everyone who visits the model Helldiver.Yes, sometimes you feel called to a place. I have very much enjoyed my association with Rotary.  It has helped me make many valuable connections to the community and one very special connection to my dad.