LR Langenheim1

Ralph Langenheim, then a member of the Champaign County Board, tells a story in October 2008 at his home in Urbana about his time in the Navy in World War II.

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URBANA — Energetic to his last, Ralph Langenheim was a Champaign County Board member and World War II veteran. He lived a long life with many, many interests, from geology to irreverent humor.

He died Aug. 3 at 97.

Jennifer Putman, a 30-year veteran of the county board, was seatmates with Mr. Langenheim on the board until she stepped down in 2008.

“I feel very fortunate that I got to see him last Thursday or Friday,” she said.

She said she was grateful for his wife, Mary Casey Diana.

“It makes me understand when they say somebody died peacefully at home. His wife, Casey, is an angel for making it happen,” Putman said.

She said Mr. Langenheim was a true original.

“He was ornery, but I believe in ornery,” she said.

She called him Ralph “Paleo” Langenheim because he was a professor of geology at the University of Illinois from 1959 to 1992, and a professor emeritus since 1993.

With Tom Betz, “the three of us ran together the year following redistricting. We campaigned door to door. He had the taste for the arm around-the-shoulder stuff, person-to-person politics. We had a lot of fun writing our leaflets together, three strong-willed people to produce one leaflet.”

Republicans might not agree with him, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t admire him.

Republican Greg Knott spent several years on the board with Mr. Langenheim.

“Ralph was always a joy to speak with,” Knott said. “He and I spoke before every meeting and had some good-natured ribbing of each other. Ralph cared deeply about the citizens of Champaign County, and his service was exemplary. We need more people like him serving in local government today. I will miss him greatly.”

Mr. Langenheim gave much of his time to anyone who would listen. He always stayed after Champaign County Board meetings to give reporters his take on issues, often at odds with his seatmates.

County Board Chairman Giraldo Rosales enjoyed Mr. Langenheim’s humor and was bemused by his stick-to-itiveness.

“We were discussing when to open up some closed minutes. He said ‘Never!’” Rosales recalled, and after some negotiations, they got him to relent to 99 years.

“I enjoyed him as a person,” Rosales said.

Mr. Langenheim was a writer of curt letters to the editor such as: “Do you want President Donald Trump’s hand on the nuclear trigger?”

After all, Mr. Langenheim had seen his share of war.

Amateur historian Knott often asked him about his service in World War II, “which he downplayed; but I know he had a significant role at D-Day.”

The veteran told The News-Gazette his service in World War II was “small potatoes.”

From engineering school, Mr. Langenheim sped through Navy training, became a lieutenant junior grade and was assigned to amphibious forces.

He remembered the hours before dawn on June 6, 1944, as quiet and filled with foreboding.

Mr. Langenheim was on a landing craft off German-held France.

Just before sunrise, Mr. Langenheim heard artillery fire — and smelled it. His ship altered course toward the beach; that was when, Mr. Langenheim recalled, a corpse floated by, not far from the wreckage of the U.S. destroyer sunk by the Germans.

For the next few hours, his landing craft maneuvered off shore under constant fire.

About 4 p.m., Mr. Langenheim’s landing craft was ordered to hit Utah Beach, he recalled.

None of the Navy personnel was hurt. But Mr. Langenheim said he felt deeply for the infantry, burdened with pounds and pounds of equipment, while stepping out into water sometimes over their heads.

Sailors used boat hooks to rescue their Army brethren.

Mr. Langeheim was born May 26, 1922, in Cincinnati, to Ralph Louis and Myrtle (Helmers) Langenheim.

Besides his wife, he is survived by his children, Victoria Langenheim and Ralf Langenheim; stepchildren Eric Steckler and Matthew Diana; granddaughter Emma Langenheim; and stepgrandchildren Logan Hodges, Eric Applequist and Stella and Scarlett Steckler.


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).