I had no idea who he really was until his life was complete.
I'd met him at an event in 1994. He was 72 then, the father of a friend. He told me he was a retired carpenter.
As we talked, it was clear he loved his wife, his children, his grandchildren. He defined himself by their wellbeing. He knew a peacefulness a
man can only know after a life well lived.
In that brief meeting, his spirit inspired me. I hoped to be like him.
Many years passed. I moved to Washington, D.C. and lost touch with my friend. A year ago, after moving back to Pittsburgh, I bumped into
him. He told me about his dad.
At 82, his health wasn't good. He'd been battling cancer. In 1997, he'd lost his wife of 49 years, a powerful blow. But he continued to embrace
one of his favorite mottos: take life as it comes.
A few months ago, the cancer won. When he learned he had only weeks to live, his response was telling. He was calm. He said he'd had a much
longer run than he expected.
He'd fought in World War II, after all — fought in four invasions. He described the terror he felt wading onto the beaches of Sicily, while
gunners tried to mow him down.
While driving a truck with 3Ĺ tons of munitions along the sand, he spotted a German fighter pilot. He jumped behind his 50 caliber machine
gun and fired. He hit the plane — he saw its window shatter — but the German managed to drop the bomb.
It was headed right at him. When it detonated, he knew, it would ignite the munitions he was hauling. The explosion would be spectacular. He
didn't panic — didn't yell or scream. He thought only of his mother, agonizing over the pain she would know when she learned her son had
But the bomb was a dud. Recounting the story years later, he laughed at how it soaked him when it hit the surf. He laughed at how he'd
survived his first scrape with death.
He fought in three other invasions. In one, he took shrapnel to the back of his knee. He plucked out the hot metal and kept moving.
On the way to another, a truck mount broke. His leg was pinned against a hillside by a cannon, crushing his knee, an injury that would nag him
the rest of his life.
At one point, he was put in charge of a prison camp. Escape attempts were common. German prisoners routinely slit the throats of their captors
in the process.
But he'd treated his prisoners with dignity — even offering them cigarettes. They were all in the same boat, after all, just happy to be alive.
While off-duty sleeping one night, one German escaped. The German chose to treat him with dignity, too, sparing his life.
After cheating death during the war, he dove head first into life. He resumed work as a carpenter, while studying engineering at night. He
married, bought a home, started a family.
He was just getting warmed up.
In time, he rose through the ranks in his union, the Carpenter's District Council of Western Pennsylvania. He became its leader, improving
working conditions and pay. He established pension funds. He fought for the dignity of thousands of tradesmen.
He won the respect of many. He befriended business leaders, congressman and senators (as a labor leader, he boldly endorsed a Republican
candidate, Sen. H. John Heinz). He supported charities and was invited to sit on boards.
Like so many World War II veterans, he never spoke much about his experiences and accomplishments. It wasn't until he died that the
remarkable details of his story finally began to emerge.
He was Robert P Argentine, a man who left the world a much better place than he'd found it. His spirit still inspires me — I still hope to be like
Like I said, I had no idea who he really was until his life was complete.