The Eulogy for Harold Gantert
Harold was born on the last day of 1921 in Newark, NJ. He was preceded in birth by two brothers, the first of which had died at a very young age, and the second, Russell, who was born a year before Harold.
Very early on in Harold’s life the family moved up to Bennington, Vermont where his father was from. His father pursued a variety of vocations to make a living, including that of actor and salesman, both of which took him out of the home and on the road for extended periods of time. Harold was particularly close to his mother, with whom he shared a similarly calm temperament.
When Harold was just ten years old his Dad died, at which point the family moved to Lakehurst, NJ where his father had relatives. At some point after that the family moved back to Newark where Harold graduated from high school. The family’s financial situation didn’t allow for Harold to pursue a college education at that time – Harold needed to enter the work force to be able to help support his mother. He found employment with a company called Baxter Rubber working under a manager named Ernest Bryan. Ernest would become quite literally a father figure for Harold when, as a result of Harold’s introduction, Ernest who would later marry Harold’s mother and become his stepfather.
It was during this time, however, that our country found itself at war with an enemy intent on taking over the world, and Harold felt the call to serve his country and do his part to help liberate the world from the evil that was the Nazi regime. So on Christmas Eve of 1942 Harold enlisted in the Air Corp.
Having written a book with Sandy Bostwick about this next part of Harold’s story, I’ll be giving you the most detail about this leg of his journey, in part because I know it best, but also because it reveals a lot, I think, about the man we knew and loved.
Over the next four months, Harold underwent intensive training to become a flight navigator, which took him to bases in Louisiana, Florida, Iowa and finally Grand Island, Nebraska, where Harold was assigned to a bomber crew consisting of ten men. A photo from this time gives the impression that Harold was a fun guy to have on your crew.
On April 7th, 1943 at the young age of 22 Harold arrived with his flight crew at the air base in Grafton – Underwood, England. Within three weeks of their arrival, Harold’s crew took off on their first mission, making strikes on German forces in occupied France. Up until then a single mission would have been a full day’s work for a crew, but Harold had arrived at the precise moment in which the allied counter-attack to liberate France was intensifying. And so upon refueling, the crew set out that afternoon for a second, successful mission into France.
The following day Harold was given the job taking a new bomber on a test ride, but the plane was not ready for action, and it crashed on the runway, becoming engulfed in flames. Fortunately Harold and his two fellow crew members survived the crash without injury.
But there was no time for rest. The very next morning Harold was awoken early and ordered to report for duty. A flight team was about to depart on a bombing mission and their navigator had become sick. And so it happened on April 29th, 1943 that Harold took off with a crew of nine men he had never before met. The crew flew to Berlin, Germany to attack a railroad and disrupt the transport of supplies to the German troops on the front. Having successfully dropped their load of bombs, the plane turned back home. Around noon, flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet, Harold suddenly heard an ear-rattling explosion. Under fire from ground artillery and a German fighter plane approaching from behind, his plane had been struck. Harold was not hurt, but several of the crew members were injured. The plane was going down.
The bombardier, having been hit, seemed dazed, so Harold helped him get into position behind the two pilots and the engineer to jump out from the front of the plane, while the other crew members evacuated from the rear. Once the bombardier had jumped, Harold said a little prayer asking God to take care of him. Feeling strangely calm and at peace, Harold was the last man to jump out of the plane.
Never before had Harold parachuted from a plane, but he had been instructed to anticipate a sudden jolt as the parachute opened. He was surprised to feel no such jolt. The only sound was that of the swoosh of air rushing by. Shortly afterwards the plane exploded. Harold drifted peacefully down into a forest, landing in a tree.
To pause here in the telling of his story: If you knew Harold, you’re familiar with the quality of calm serenity that characterized his life. Nothing seemed to be able to really get him upset. He was this way in part because it was simply his God-given nature which he shared with his mother. But the experience Harold went through in Germany certainly had a lot to do with it as well. After you’ve been shot out of the sky and parachuted to the earth in the land of the enemy where nothing is familiar and discovered in that experience the unsurpassing peace of God, well, moving forward there isn’t going to be too much in life that can rattle you.
Harold knew first hand the reality expressed in the 23rd psalm: “Yeah, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me…Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemy; my cup runneth over.”
And so to return to Harold’s story… with no sign of the other crew members, Harold found himself all alone in the forest. He began making his way westward walking by cover of darkness. It was cold and damp and Harold got a touch of frost bite on his feet, but he described feeling oddly free. He enjoyed the quiet countryside, the magnificence of the night sky, and the beauty and the tranquility of the forest.
After four days alone in the forest, and feeling quite hungry, with no hope of making it allied occupied area, Harold allowed himself to be captured. After two long train rides and a series of interrogations that left Harold amused by the exasperation of his interrogators, Harold ended up in Stalag Luft III, where just two months earlier a massive prison break had been orchestrated by the prisoners there. As a result, there had been a crack down in the camp’s security, with the threat of certain execution hanging over any further attempted prison breaks.
There was nothing to do but make the best of his time, which is exactly what Harold did. One of his earliest letters home to his mother demonstrates Harold’s determinably positive outlook, as well as his characteristic sense of humor:
“Almost all of the fellows in my room are college men, so I have a very good environment. I am even spending some of my time each day to catch up on my acquaintance with the Bible. Perhaps someday I’ll actually discover that I am learning something worthwhile for a change. We are all in good spirits and things are looking much brighter for us. I certainly hope that we can all return home before too many months pass. War, at best, isn’t a very pleasant business to be associated with and I’m willing to change jobs any time now.”
For the better part of a year Harold kept himself busy, tending to a garden and becoming deeply involved in the in-camp theater the prisoners created for their own entertainment. He acted, built scenery, and was put in charge of making costumes.
I want to read to you something that holds great wisdom that Harold said about his experience relating to the prison guards:
“When you (would) deal with life’s so-called “the enemy” in a friendly way, you would find it would find it makes life more bearable in the camp. If you were just antagonistic toward them all the time, the same thing was going to return to you; you weren’t going to have a very pleasant experience. When you talked to the guards individually, you found you could talk about a lot of things, but when there were two of them together, you soon found you couldn’t talk about anything with them because they couldn’t trust each other.”
In the prison camp, and throughout his life, Harold lived by the golden rule, understanding that kindness is the better way, and that when you relate to people as individuals, there is always hope for a human connection.
The only truly hellish part of Harold’s time as a prisoner of war came towards the end when the allied forces were advancing in response to which the guards forced their captives to make two grueling marches away from the front. With meager rations and little time for rest they covered perhaps two hundred miles by foot in the midst of cold, damp weather conditions that often included sleet and snow. At times Harold would assist fellow prisoners who were struggling to carry on.
Again, once a man has gone through something as grueling as this, moving forward the word “difficult” is seen in whole new light.
Finally on April 29th, 1945 exactly one year after jumping out of that burning plane, allied forces arrived liberating Harold and his fellow prisoners.
Following the war, Harold would remain in active duty serving his country in the Air Force for another twenty years. He supported his mother financially until her marriage to Ernest in 1948.
For the first fifteen of those twenty years Harold continued to serve as a navigator on mission flights. The first place he was stationed was Texas which is where he met Queenie. Making sure he’d have a wife to come home, Harold married Queenie in 1953 shortly before leaving for England for a series of missions that would keep him away from home for an extended period of time. Harold had a house built in Texas for Queenie and the family they would begin raising together.
In 1955 their first child, Debbie was born, followed by Gail in 1957. By 1960 the flights had begun to wear on Harold, taking him away from his family too often, and he asked to have himself grounded, at which point he was assigned to a desk job in Spain. It was there in 1962 that Linda was born.
Debbie remembers fondly family trips to a camp the air force had set up for military families. Always one to get offer his help, Harold was instrumental in building a playground for the children at the camp.
In Barcelona there was an orphanage with which Harold became involved, demonstrating his characteristic compassion for those less fortunate. Debbie remembers family trips at Christmas time to visit the children of the orphanage, bringing them gifts.
In June of 1963 Harold was reassigned to the Vanderberg Air Force base in Santa Maria, California. The same civic-mindedness that he would become famous for years later in Parsippany was on display as Harold got involved in the Vanderberg Village Association, the governing body of the military community in which the family lived.
Wherever they lived, Harold enjoyed taking his family on car trips. (Having to spend so much time in a plane with his work, he greatly preferred driving to flying.) They would explore museums and historical sites. In the two years of life in California Harold happily took his family on trips to the beach, to the HollywoodWax Museum, as well as seven visits to Disneyland. He also loved to take his family to the movies.
Harold was proud to be serving his country in the Air Force, and appreciated the structure and opportunities it provided for him to develop himself. Over the years, mostly at night, Harold pursued the education that wasn’t available to him earlier in his life, slowly but steadily acquiring a BA from the University of Maryland, and after that, an MBA from Farleigh Dickinson.
Harold had attained the rank of colonel when he finally retired from the air force in 1965. The family moved back to New Jersey, where they lived for a year with his mother and step-father in Vailsburg section of Newark. Harold resumed working for Ernie, who years before had started his own business — what would become the Allied Gasket Craft Company in East Orange.
A year later the family moved to Parsippany to their house on Hidden Glen Drive. Harold joined our church, serving over the years in a variety of capacities. He was the chairman of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee when I arrived here 25 years ago, and I remember with gratitude Harold taking me out to lunch my first week.
Through the church Harold became involved in the March of Dimes, serving on the Morris County Board of Directors.
Just about every Sunday Harold would be sitting back there in his seat in the last row, not far from Ruth and Charles. Every year on the anniversary of his marriage to Queenie, he would make a point of giving thanks to God during our prayer time.
In the early seventies, when his daughter Gail was in the band at Parsippany High Harold got involved with the band’s boosters. He served as the band’s photographer, a hobby in which had developed a growing interest, and continued in this capacity when Linda came of age to join the band. He served on the Board of Education for two years. For several years he served as the president of the Board of the ParsippanyAdultSchool.
By the time Linda graduated from high school, he’d come to so enjoy hanging out with the band and become such good friends with the band leader, Joe Bernabe, that he signed on to serve as chaperone on all the band’s trips, some of which lasted as long as a week. He continued in this capacity well into his eighties.
How many eighty-year-olds can you picture serving as a chaperone stuck on a bus with a hoard of hormone-crazed teenagers? Not many. But Harold loved these trips; he loved the kids.
Harold was a charter member of the local Kiwanis Club, faithfully present every Thursday morning for breakfast, deeply involved in the good work they do to make a positive difference in this world.
In so many different settings, Harold lived out a commitment to service and his desire to help those less fortunate than himself. Everything he did, he with humility with no intention of calling attention to himself.
In 1976, Harold’s step-father died, and he took over the reins of fully running the business. Remarkably he would continue in this capacity, driving to work each day up until the age of 91.
Again, how many 90-year-olds would even think of doing such a thing? Harold was a remarkable man.
Beginning in August, Linda made several trips to New Jersey to help her father to run and ultimately to sell the business, completing the process in November, allowing her father to reach the peace of mind of knowing that there was no more unfinished business to which he needed to attend.
When the grandchildren and the great grandchildren came along, Harold was the consummate grandfather.
Harold had a very down-to-earth way of approaching whatever it was that lay before him. Throughout his life, he’d calmly figure out what he or his family had to do to get through the challenge that stood before them. His daughters spoke of how calming their father’s demeanor and advice was at times when they were facing difficult times.
Debbie will talk later about how her father accompanied her to more theatrical and cultural events that she can remember. He brought an extraordinary open-mindedness to these experiences that is uncommon for a man of his generation.
Harold was loved by so many, because he was so loving. And funny too. He would often surprise people, because the initial impression he would make was of a very quiet, shy, serious person. But to get to know him was to discover quite the contrary: a light heart, somebody who loved the company of people and could at times be very talkative, all with a very dry and delightful sense of humor. To know Harold was to love Harold.
The last couple of months were hard for Harold as the body that had covered so many miles began to give out. He spent the last two and a half months living in health care facilities, grateful for the frequent visits of Debbie and Mike and others.
Along with everything else we’ve said about Harold, he was a man of quiet faith. He asked for, and received a sense of God’s presence with him when seventy years ago Harold jumped out of that burning plane flying 15,000 feet over Germany. He was led by that same presence throughout his life.
Linda described a conversation she had with her father at his bedside at Kindred in Dover not long before he died. She was struck by the light-hearted way he spoke to her, even as he was clearly aware of the fact that he was reaching the end of his life on earth. “God has gotten me through so many things,” he said, “and some of them I’m not even sure why He got me through.” He went on to say, “I’m ready for my next chapter; I’m ready for whatever it is God has in store for me next.”