Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day Story Worth Repeating

A Re-post to honor America’s veterans
Clairton flyboy: original “Dancing With the Star”

Not exactly a love affair but: Donnabelle Mullenger probably never saw the steel mills and coke plants that belched soot, smoke, and quencher in Clairton, PA. She was born and raised on a farm near Denison, Iowa but moved to Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. She changed her name to Donna Reed and starred as Jimmy Stewart’s wife in the sappy holiday movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Ed Skvarna has had a pretty wonderful life himself. He grew up in Clairton, half a country away from cornfields and flat land, inhaling all the dirty air until he joined the Army to fight the Germans. Two of his brothers, John and Leo also served. We’ve highlighted many Clairtonians and former residents of this fair city. This post features a young man who went off to war – WW-II, the Big One... it was in all the papers.

Higher Education – in a B-29: Ed graduated from Clairton High School in 1943 and immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps, later to be renamed the Air Force. Like so many lads of the era he envisioned the romance of flight and signed up for flight school. He was rejected for pilot training because he was colorblind but selected to be a crew member and sent to Kansas for training as a right gunner on a B-29. Being up in a plane was not the only time Ed’s feet left the ground. One evening at the Wichita USO canteen he gathered up his courage and asked the pretty movie star Donna Reed for a dance. In another movie in which she starred as a nurse with John Wayne, he declined her offer to dance, but Ed is from Clairton and he’s no dummy, so he made the move and asked for a dance. She accepted, and Ed was on cloud nine without his B-29. It was the first celebrity he’d ever met but she seemed so down-to-earth. The memory of that dance stuck with him as he finished his training and went off to fight in the skies above Asia.

Star-struck young G.I. writes: After Ed was sent to Asia he dropped Donna notes now and then from China, India, and the Marianas. In May of 1945, while Ed was based in the Marianas near Guam he received a letter back from the film star. It made him “jump with joy.” He had sent her snapshots of himself and told her of some of his adventures and of course, asked for a photo of her. Similar stories of American soldiers and celebrities are told by the men who return home from war. Some are believed with a wink, and others seem to be stretching the truth. But Ed’s was no bull.

The Donna Reed Letter Show: Donna Reed, often called America’s Sweetheart” during the war, kept many of the letters – 341 of them to be exact, from Ed and other lonely U.S. servicemen from over the world. Many, including Ed’s were simply addressed “Miss Donna Reed, Santa Monica, California.” She kept the letters in a shoebox, perhaps taking them out to read and reflect from time to time. Eventually though the shoebox was relegated to a trunk and stored in a garage at her Beverly Hills home, far from her Iowa roots and even farther from Ed Skvara’s hometown of Clairton. But ironically not so far from Ed who in 1950 had settled in Covina, CA, a Los Angeles suburb not too far from his wartime heartthrob. Both got on with their post-war lives, Ed as a schoolteacher and administrator and Donna as an actress, and that would have been the end of the story. Donna Reed died of pancreatic cancer in 1986 at the age of 64, more than 40 years after Donna and Ed had cut a rug on the dance floor and exchanged letters and photos. It would be another 23 years after her death before the letters were discovered.

Who knows what treasures lie in unopened trunks?: Last year Ms. Reed’s daughter, Mary Owens was rummaging through some of her mother’s old possessions and stumbled across the trunk, the shoebox, and the letters. She got in touch with an editor for the New York Times and the letters were highlighted in a Memorial Day story.

Talented actress and patriot: Donna Reed’s accomplishments included the roles opposite Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne as cited above, and her television show, “The Donna Reed Show,” in which she played Donna Stone. She won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a prostitute in “From Here to Eternity.” Among her many other movie roles she played opposite Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Alan Ladd, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Charleton Heston, and Fred MacMurray. Her TV credits included the role of Ellie Ewing Farlow on Dallas.

Home safe and sound: After the war Ed returned home safely and used the G.I. Bill to earn a teaching degree in Industrial Arts from California State Teachers College in California, PA. He married and he and his wife moved to California (the state) in 1950. There he spent a career as a father of three and an educator – teacher and administrator in the El Monte School District. Ed Skrvana, bombardier, dancer with the stars, educator, and Clairton boy.

A little blogging music Maestro... “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins.

Dr. Forgot

No comments: