DANVILLE — During his 15 years as a volunteer with the Vermilion County War Museum, Ron Bolser has had to say goodbye to quite a few World War II veterans.
But none quite like Harold "Sparky" Songer.
"Sparky" knew so many people, and so many people knew him, said Bolser, who is on the board of directors of the museum where Mr. Songer became a fixture after he and other World War II veterans opened it in the mid-1990s.
"This was his hobby," Bolser reminisced Monday at the museum. "This was his life."
Mr. Songer, 88, of Danville, died Sunday at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis. The Veedersburg, Ind., native was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, fought during the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded both a Purple Star and a Bronze Star in his decorated military career.
His stories became one of the museum's top attractions.
At 19, he was a soldier in the 423rd regiment of the Army's 106th Division, which was forced to surrender to the Germans after being pinned down for two days in Belgium's Ardennes Forest. Mr. Songer spent six months as a prisoner of war. "We lived in shacks in the woods, slept on bunks on bags of straw that were full of lice," he once told The News-Gazette — and many other museum visitors over the years. "... Our water was melted snow. Our meals were one bowl of soup in the evening with maybe a potato and a piece of horse meat."
After escaping, Mr. Songer went back home to Veedersburg, re-enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 and went on to serve in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. After 20 years in the Air Force, he retired and spent about 15 years as coordinator of veterans affairs at Danville Area Community College.
Toward the end of his time at DACC, Mr. Songer and several other veterans tried to convince the city to lease to them the vacant 1904 Carnegie Building at 307 N. Vermilion St., so they could create a war museum. The city ultimately did, and after considerable fundraising and renovations to the dilapidated former home of the Danville Public Library, the group opened the museum on Veterans Day 1999.
One of a kind
Over the years, Mr. Songer's name became the one most synonymous with the museum. He was a volunteer, like the others, but put in hours like it was his full-time job.
In the beginning, Bolser remembers, Sparky kept the museum open seven days a week. Although official hours didn't begin at 7 a.m., he was there that early every morning, seven days a week, and never left until late afternoon.
"He was the one who really created the first 10 years of the museum," Bolser said.
John McFetridge, a Danville attorney who is also on the museum board, said Mr. Songer was tremendously hard-working, patriotic, highly respected and always concerned about veterans issues.
He was also a true community asset who was there, giving McFetridge words of encouragement when his own son served as an Army infantryman in Iraq.
"(The museum) owes its existence to the efforts of Mr. Songer," McFetridge said. "He will certainly be missed."
Although Mr. Songer's influence can be linked to almost every part of the museum, it's likely the back-room table where his absence will be the most noted.
That's where he sat and drank his coffee, often with other veterans and volunteers, sharing stories from their service.
"He loved to tell war stories," Bolser said.
Not all of them, though. Mr. Songer had traumatic experiences in war, Bolser said, and some stories were too painful to share.
Mr. Songer was instrumental in other veterans' causes in the community besides the museum. He and the late Harold Leisch launched the effort to collect tens of thousands of aluminum cans to raise money for war memorials in Danville — a World War II memorial, a Korean-Vietnam Memorial and a Women's War Memorial. He was also a charter member of Danville Sunrise Rotary.
But he was most passionate about supporting veterans. Mr. Songer ran the museum almost like a veterans affairs office, Bolser said, with all kinds of paperwork and information available to veterans who would visit.
"It's an honor to keep on working with veterans and have a building as beautiful as this to keep their memories alive," Mr. Songer told The News-Gazette in 1999. "I can't wait to get to work in the morning, and I'm reluctant to go home at night."
Mr. Songer's wife, Eloise, spent hours by Sparky's side at the museum until her health became an issue. Bolser said that was the first time Mr. Songer began cutting back his hours. She died in 2006, and Sparky eventually came back on a regular basis.
"If it wasn't for this museum," Bolser said, "I think he would have died earlier."
Crowd goes wild
Over the years, Mr. Songer had two hip replacements, a knee replacement and three back surgeries.
He told The News-Gazette for a 1999 story that he believed the pain that doctors attributed to his back came from being struck so hard by a German guard that it broke the man's baton.
In 2011, Mr. Songer finally had to give up coming in to volunteer at the museum.
Bolser said he would still drop by from time to time, attending board meetings and some special functions. But it was getting harder and harder for him to get around physically.
At a recent charity softball game for wounded veterans at Danville Stadium, Mr. Songer needed help getting out to the pitching mound for the ceremonial first pitch. But to Bolser's surprise, Sparky fired the ball all the way to the catcher.
He got a standing ovation.
"I think that was one of his highlights," Bolser said.
Mr. Songer is the second World War II veteran volunteer the museum has lost in less than two months, Bolser said.
Cordy Heron, who was on the museum's board, died last month. Bolser said the museum is looking, more than ever, to younger veterans and others to get involved.
"I think Sparky just wanted to leave this as a place to view history hands-on," Bolser said, "rather than out of a book."