CANBY, Minn. – As he does most years, Paul Miller will dress on Memorial Day morning in his well-fitting Army uniform and head to festivities here in his hometown park.
For the first time, though, the 89-year-old World War II veteran will speak about a group he’s cherished for nearly seven decades that many in his community know little about.
There is no one else to share the story. With the passing of Ralph Hentges in April, Miller is the last man left of Canby’s Last Man Company.
Beginning with 72 members in 1946, the social club for Canby VFW members gathered every September for nearly 68 years at the VFW Post. They shared a hot meal and laughs, and updated their friends on marriages and children, jobs and moves.
And every year, they honored with an empty chair and black ribbon the men who were no longer among them. Each year, they called out one or two names and toasted to their memory. At the 50th gathering, half were gone.
Now it’s just Miller.
“A lot of people said it sounds like it would be a morbid kind of organization,” Miller said, “but it’s quite the contrary. It was very much an honor, actually. They’d all been in battle and survived.”
Miller grew up in Canby, 160 miles west of Minneapolis. He was among 30 in his high school graduation class.
He served in the Army for three years, returning home to work for his father in the farm implement business. He met his wife, Elaine, on a blind date and they married on July 5, 1947. He likes to joke that “it was the day I lost my independence.”
He later bought the farm business from his father. He and Elaine raised two children, Peg and Jim. They have five grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Last Man founder Douglas DeLaurier, born Sept. 9, 1901, called the first meeting to order on Sept. 2, 1946. The bylaws were hardly severe.
“The membership fee shall be $1.25 and shall include the annual banquet for the year 1946.” The three top officers were determined by who was the oldest. John Bowe was the first to have that honor: He was born Dec. 2, 1869, fought in the Spanish-American War and died in 1954.
Perhaps most important, the group was to purchase a “suitable bottle of wine” to be opened and drunk by the last two surviving members. They chose a California red and all signed the label.
Year after year, the men returned to their hometown from as far away as California and Texas. Social hour began at 6 p.m. At 7, they sat down to grace, roll call and dinner served by the VFW women’s auxiliary. “Chicken, mashed potatoes, the whole ball of wax,” Miller said. Somebody always wanted the gizzard and hearts, he added.
They passed a hat, with money going to the Canby senior center.
Some men left by 9:30 or 10, but “a lot of times, we’d party on for quite a while,” Miller recalled, “with a little more drinking than was necessary.”
His family knew where he was going those September nights, but they knew little about his service to his country. Like so many men of his generation, Miller was reticent to share those memories.
“He would never talk about the war,” said Miller’s son-in-law, Byron Olson. “I told Peg, ‘You’ve got to have him sit down and tell the story of the war to our kids.’ ”
About 18 months ago, Miller went into his attic and pulled down a map with dotted lines documenting the routes his unit traveled across Europe, including the towns where they moved prisoners of war.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I had never seen it,” marveled Peg. “This is where we took the prisoners of war? What?”
His willingness to share resonated with the younger generation, too. Recently, one of his grandkids saw Miller’s photograph hanging at the VFW. “That’s my grandpa,” he said proudly.
In 2010, there were just six men left in the Canby Last Man Company. Two died that year, then one each in 2012 and 2013. When Miller and Hentges, his chum from childhood, met a year ago, they decided to donate the bottle of wine to the Canby VFW. It now hangs above a binder documenting 67 years of membership logs.
Similar Last Man groups share Canby’s struggle. Stillwater’s WWII Last Man Club has combined with another group of Stillwater men who served in Korea. Rochester’s WWII Last Man Club disbanded in 2013.
Elaine always told her husband that he’d be the last man.
“Only the good die young,” she said from her chair in the couple’s living room. Then she smiled.
“He’s a tough guy.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum