Fred de Sam Lazaro was flying home from the Philippines on Monday when he struck up a conversation with his seatmate. De Sam Lazaro, a "PBS NewsHour" correspondent, had been overseas researching projects on sex-trafficking and a Minnesota-based civilian peacekeeping force.
But he wanted to tell his seatmate about Hank. "I was telling her about this World War II hero, showing her pictures of him," said De Sam Lazaro. "I've been thinking a lot about Hank."
He was unaware that Henry "Hank" Andersen, a Presbyterian minister for 40 years, father of the Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen of Minneapolis' Westminster Presbyterian Church and the subject of De Sam Lazaro's moving PBS segment in December, had died that very morning.
Hank was 87 and had Alzheimer's disease.
"Amid all of the stories I do from distant parts of the world," De Sam Lazaro said, "it was just so unusual to do a Christmas story from Minneapolis."
Unusual doesn't begin to describe it. In a marvelous twist of fate, I met Hank a decade ago when he shared a long-buried war story with the Star Tribune. Turns out it was my family's long-buried war story too.
Hank and my father, Sidney Rosenblum, were 19-year-old soldiers traveling on the ill-fated S.S. Leopoldville heading toward Cherbourg, France, to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. On Christmas Eve, 1944, a German torpedo hit their ship, killing more than 800 soldiers.
Sidney was among the lucky survivors. I believe that's because, just before the torpedo hit, he likely joined many soldiers led by Hank to the upper-deck to sing Christmas carols. (Yes, the Jewish kid sang Christmas carols, and I am so glad he did.)
Both men chose life paths (my dad, psychology, Hank, the ministry) that would help others. My dad died in 1988 of cancer, which made this surprise connection to the Andersens so sweet. I've kept in touch with Hank and wife Mary and with Tim and his family. The serendipitous connection between our fathers is something difficult to explain, except to him.
After the war, Hank led four churches in the Midwest and devoted his life to improving race relations, public education, employment and housing. He delivered the keynote address at a U.N. conference on developing nations.
He and Mary, married for 65 years, raised four children and have nine grandchildren. For seven years, they lived near Westminster Church and often appeared for meals where charming Hank "would work the room," Tim said. "He went deep with people. He was a great listener."
Hank even preached the Christmas sermon one year on his harrowing war experience.
Four years ago, he and Mary moved to the Northwest, where extended family live. His health began to decline. Last year, Tim began to toss around an idea. Every year, his church holds an annual holiday dinner, where members share personal Christmas stories. Wasn't it time to tell his father's?
"I knew his war story would continue," Tim said, "but I did sense that, if it were to be a story we could share together, it needed to be this year."
They did it up big. In early December, dozens of volunteers came together to build a set simulating a 1940s-style radio drama. The two-night "The Night Before Christmas" was written by Tim, produced by Melanie Ohnstad and John Heefner, and arranged by "Prairie Home Companion" veteran and church member Vern Sutton.
(It also featured a young, singing Sidney Rosenblum, which was pretty cool).
De Sam Lazaro learned about the sold-out show from friend and church member Jim Peter. Largely on his own dime, he produced a PBS segment about "The Night Before Christmas" that aired on Dec. 23, 2011 (tinyurl.com/8q9hazy).
"This was one of the rare occasions where I didn't ask for the 'NewsHour's' approval," De Sam Lazaro said with a laugh. "It was one of the most delightful changes of pace for this office."
Like me, he was captivated by Hank, whose war experience defined how he lived the rest of his years. "This is a guy who could simply appreciate his white privilege," De Sam Lazaro said. "But, when the war was over, he fought for social justice and became a preacher. It epitomizes what leadership should be."
"The Night Before Christmas" was the last time he or I saw Hank, still tall and handsome, still smiling and charming and still dapper in his Army uniform that still fit.
Hank had a stroke in March and died Sept. 3 in Portland, Ore., surrounded by family. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Oct. 13 in the Westminster Presbyterian Church sanctuary.
"We had several great final days with him," Tim said. "It was an odd and mysterious thing. He rose up from the Alzheimer's and was fully present. He laughed and told stories. He went peacefully. I am so grateful that we did what we did in December."
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