I met him in the fall of 2006 when we were starting to plan the very first WDAY Honor Flight to send WWII veterans on free trips to Washington, D.C.
He came up to the table at one of our earliest fundraisers with a huge smile on his face.
“Hi, my name is Bob Beach and I think I might be going on your trip. I signed up. Did you get my application?”
In the beginning, we speculated that we’d have room for about 100 veterans on that first flight in May 2007. A lot depended upon how many volunteers and medical staff were needed. Veterans who applied were chosen on a first-come, first-served basis.
I had the spreadsheet in front of me and my heart sank when I saw Bob’s position on it. He was No. 103. It was very likely he wouldn’t go on this first trip. When I broke the bad news to him, his smile didn’t fade one bit. He just said he’d hope for the best. His positive attitude struck me immediately, especially since he was a guy who could have really used a break.
Bob Beach joined the Navy right after he graduated from high school in Ashby, Minn. He was assigned to an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and fought in the Battle of Okinawa.
When he came home, he married Darlene “Sis” Hendricksen and they had three children. Their baby girl, Bonnie Lynn, died in infancy. But sons Lonny and Rick, both of whom happened to have cerebral palsy, were the apple of Bob’s eye. During the time of the flight, Darlene and the boys were all confined to wheelchairs and Bob was tasked with much of their care. He admitted his plate was pretty full, but he wasn’t complaining.
We all would have loved to take him away for a weekend in Washington, but as the weeks wore on, it still didn’t look good. Just a couple of weeks before the flight, we crunched the numbers more and learned that Bob would get to be on that first flight.
I’ll never forget watching him on that trip. I don’t think he ever stopped smiling.
But the next few years would be tough for Bob. In the summer of 2012, his beloved wife Darlene died. Just a month later, Rick died, and two years later on Christmas Day, Lonny died. Bob was all alone. When I’d run into him occasionally and ask how he was doing, he’d admit he was sad, but tried to remember the good times. And he kept on smiling.
The last time I saw him was when he agreed to do another video interview with us to promote the Honor Flight program. But we became worried when we showed up at his house and he didn’t answer the door. We decided to walk around to the back of his house to see if he was there. He was — sitting in a lawn chair, dozing in the sun.
When he woke up after hearing us call out his name, he apologized profusely that he delayed the interview. Of course, we didn’t care. I mean, seriously, when you get a hot, sunny day in Fargo, N.D., you have to soak it up, right? We recorded the interview and left. No harm done.
A few days later, I received not one, but two “I’m sorry” Hallmark cards. That was Bob. He had nothing to be sorry for, but he always thought of others before himself.
I attended his funeral in August. It was full of people who had similar stories to tell about this wonderful man. As much as we miss his smile, I'd like to think he's up there sitting in that lawn chair, soaking up the sun and not apologizing to anyone for doing so.