It’s so easy for people, particularly young college students, to get caught in the bubble that is their immediate life, not thinking about the bigger picture and wider world. It isn’t anything to feel badly about. We all get lost in our own thoughts, and college students have a dedicated environment involving studying, classes, and social lives on campus to be concerned with.
Imagine, though, that you’re a Findlay College student in the early 1940s. It’s early December, and you’re out on campus playing some pickup football with your friends. You’re in that happy bubble, having the time of your young life, and then your world changes forever. According to his daughter, that’s what happened to the late Leonard Graves, a veteran of the United States Army, who had his life as a young Oiler student turned upside down by World War II.
Graves was playing in that pickup game on Sunday, December 7, 1941, when a fellow student opened his dorm window and yelled to the boys below that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. “They all hurried in and gathered around the closest radio,” said Graves’ daughter, Pam. It’s not clear if they knew immediately that the trajectory of their innocent lives as college students was about to change dramatically for most of them. The majority of young students, including Graves, went home for Christmas Break that year and didn’t come back to campus. “Dad spent Christmas with the family,” she explained, “but enlisted shortly after to fight in the war.”
A product of Hammond, Indiana, Graves was a child of industry. Hammond was a blue collar, hardworking area, known for its steel mills, factories, refineries, and the strong men who worked in them. “His parents, my grandparents, both worked at the time, and it was particularly rare for the women in the late 30s/early 40s,” Pam Graves said. “But they wanted their children to be able to go to college.” Leonard Graves, a muscular 6’2” nearly 200-pound offensive end on the football squad at Hammond High School, was offered a small scholarship to Findlay for his athletic skills, and after high school he headed to campus with big dreams of a bright future looming in his head.
But that fateful day in December turned him from a young, carefree college man to a full-grown army soldier in a matter of months. He enlisted in the same army unit that his father had fought with in the first World War–the 82nd–which had changed from the “All-American” unit in his father’s day to a paratrooper unit for Leonard’s involvement. After boot camp, Graves was assigned to the Glider Infantry Regiment, and he stayed in the states until late Spring 1944, when he was transferred to England before D-Day to begin the liberation of Europe from Nazi control. In December 1944, when it became clear that the Germans were going to attempt a last-ditch effort to gain some momentum in the war, Leonard was transferred to a fighting unit. What came next, for Leonard and countless other American soldiers, was deployment to the Battle of the Bulge, among the fiercest fighting during one of the coldest winters on record in Europe. For Christmas that year, he found himself in the middle of heavy fighting, a far cry from family, the campus of Findlay College and his youthful past. He would later recall that terrible winter as the worst of this life.
Graves stayed with his unit and fought through the closing days of the war, until it all ended for him and he found himself returning to the U.S. on the legendary Queen Mary ocean liner. For American men returning from war, the time had come to rebuild America, so a college degree was shunned in favor of immediate employment, and Graves took a job with Fairbanks Morse as a salesman, traveling to all the oil companies throughout the Texas region in which he lived upon returning stateside. He met and married Joyce [Sewell] Graves, raised four daughters, became active in civic activities, and lived an honorable life until his untimely death of a heart attack in 1969 at the young age of 46.
Pam Graves and some family, including Leonard’s widow, Pam’s 90-year-old mother, plan to come from Indiana to attend the Veterans Day ceremony at UF, something Pam said wouldn’t be happening had she not made a pitstop from a trip to the east coast to see the University this past October. She wanted to buy some Findlay gear to take back to her family in honor of her late father, but when she arrived, having never been here, she didn’t know where she was going, and stopped at the security window. “A policeman said ‘Follow me, and I’ll take you to the bookstore. When you get there, go out the door and look to the right and you’ll see the Veterans Wall. Check to see if your dad is on it.’ I was so impressed by everyone on campus,” she said.
Leonard Wagner Graves will be getting his name read and a plaque put on the UF Veteran’s Wall during the November 11 Veterans Day ceremony on campus. It’s men and women like him, regardless of how much time they spent on the campus of Findlay College, and now University of Findlay, who make up the backbone of our great nation and whose sacrifice allows for current college students to live happily in their bubble.
We are forever grateful.