When Sharon Harding revealed a box holding a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a French Legion of Honor, among other decorations, at her father’s funeral in late December, it took many in attendance by surprise.
“I had people come up to me and say, ‘All these years I’ve known your family, I never knew your dad was even a veteran, much less such a decorated one,’ ” Harding said.
That’s because Jerome Hanson — a World War II Army veteran who fought under Gen. George S. Patton and in the brutal Battle of the Bulge — was a gentle farmer and craftsman who delighted in nature so much he would take bugs out of the house rather than squash them.
“He was just such a lover of nature and animals,” Harding said of Hanson, who died in Waconia on Dec. 21 at age 95. “He wouldn’t hurt a flea.”
Hanson, who remained independent and drove his own car until last September, left behind his beloved wife, Doris, daughters Harding of Watertown and Susan Thompson of Chanhassen, four grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
After the Canby native enlisted in the Army at age 21, he was engaged in combat on Utah Beach in Normandy and served through the war’s end. He rarely talked about his war experiences because those were painful memories that would give him nightmares for the rest of his life.
In 1946, Hanson married Doris “Toots” Peterson — now a healthy, spirited 94-year-old — who would remain by his side for 70 years. Together, they bought a dairy farm near Maple Plain, where they raised their two daughters and just about every other living thing.
In the summers, Hanson grew massive vegetables in gardens sporting pumpkins, watermelons, onions, peas and corn — a bounty that would be featured at the dinner table each night.
In addition to cows, the Hanson family kept chickens, rabbits and horses on their farm. When the girls decided they wanted ponies, Hanson got them one each and tended to them when his daughters weren’t off riding.
When it was baby goats they fancied, they got a pair of those, too. Hanson continued to tend those goats years after they ate the seats out of the family car when the girls were “playing house.”
“I’m sure he was really upset, but he didn’t get mad,” Harding said. “He never raised his voice and I never heard him say a foul word or a bad thing about anyone.”
Once, after accidentally killing a mother pheasant while cutting hay, he brought all the eggs home, watched them hatch and raised the baby pheasants until they were strong enough to be released back into the wild.
Until he and Doris left their longtime home in Delano for assisted living in October, Hanson would regularly feed the birds breadcrumbs on his lawn.
Hanson was also a skilled craftsman who built beautiful furniture and other gifts for his grandchildren, working in his shop up until age 90.
“My dad was into recycling long before any of us heard the word,” Harding said. “He would always say, ‘Don’t throw that away, I can make something out of that!’ ”
At last month’s funeral, Harding also discovered many kind projects her father had undertaken: helping friends start up their own farms; cleaning houses of neighbors who were sick; inviting lonely friends on vacations with him and his wife.
Like his cache of WWII medals, Hanson preferred his acts of kindness remain unspoken.
“There were so many things that went on his life — great, wonderful things,” Harding said, “that I never knew about.”