Few possessions meant more to Ron Smith than his wings. He earned them at the tail end of World War II as a paratrooper in the famed 82nd Airborne Division (nicknamed the "All Americans"). He figured he would take them to his grave.
Then one day in October a very sick old man checked into the HPH Hospice Care Center in Spring Hill. Smith, who comforts families there once a week playing hymns on the Yamaha H-8 organ he donated, got to know the patient — Wilbur C. Rollins.
They hit it off right away. They both were 81. Both had been paratroopers in the 82nd. Mr. Rollins had other memorabilia from his military days, but he had misplaced his sterling silver wings.
Mr. Rollins died on Nov. 7. His family and friends gathered for a wake. Smith approached the casket. As he peered down, he thought about the conversations he had at the hospice with Mr. Rollins, who had been a successful lawyer in Miami before retiring to Hernando County in 1994.
Smith turned to Jeannine Rollins, the widow. He removed his prized wings and handed them to her.
"I pinned them on my husband,'' she recalled last week. "Our family was so touched.''
These two men didn't know a whole lot about each other, Smith said, but they knew this: "We were paratroopers. We had a bond.''
Ron Smith wears another medal on his chest. Attached to it are bars, each one signifying 500 volunteer hours at the hospice. He has logged more than 1,500 since starting 12 years ago, helping to care for terminally ill patients in their homes.
He had some experience. Phyllis, his wife of 40 years and mother of their six sons, suffered seven years of illness before dying in February 1993 at age 58. Ron packed up a recreation vehicle the next year and left Buffalo, N.Y., where he had worked as a steel worker and later an electrical engineer for Nabisco.
He settled in Port Richey and started volunteering at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. He met Shirley, who had lost her husband, and they married 15 years ago.
HPH, formerly Hernando-Pasco Hospice, gave them an outlet for their charitable spirit. Shirley sewed gowns; Ron worked in the kitchen and eventually started playing the organ. He found the most satisfaction helping military veterans.
One man named Tom had served 24 years in the Navy. He lived alone in Port Richey. One day when Smith went to call on him, nobody answered his knock. He pushed the door open and heard a faint, "Help, help me.'' Tom was immobilized after a spill. Smith took him to the hospice house at Bayonet Point.
Tom asked him to take Polaroid pictures of him.
"He had five children,'' Smith recalled. "None of them came to see him. He wanted them to have pictures of him at the end. He died three days later. It really shook me up. I don't want anyone to be alone when they're dying. At the hospice house, people are treated with dignity, their families are provided comfort. That's why I'm here.''
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Smith didn't come looking for this story. I toured the year-old care center last month and saw the organ in the "Quiet Room.'' The HPH folks told me about this really neat volunteer.
And in our first conversation, Smith wanted to make this point first: "I get so much more out of them than they get out of me.''
Who were his role models, I wondered. Certainly not his father, who deserted the family when Smith was 9. His mother worked long hours at Woolworth's to make sure her three children had food on the table.
Ron was only 16 when he joined the Army. "I lied about my age,'' he said. He sent most of his pay home. Going Airborne doubled his salary to $100 a month.
Because he didn't have the opportunity for much formal education, he and his wife insisted their sons do well in school. They all got advanced college degrees.
One son, Philip, took ROTC and served 22 years in the Army before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He is now director of development at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y.
Philip also was a paratrooper. He had hoped someday to have his father's wings or possibly pass them down to another generation of the Smith family who might join Airborne. When he learned that his father had given his wings away, he was disappointed. Then he thought it over and wrote this in an essay that Ron keeps close to his heart:
"I quickly set those most selfish thoughts aside, however, because of the sheer pride of being this man's son … for he had made a significant and unforgettable difference in the lives of strangers and their families … and that difference is what separates the very best of us. Giving selflessly to others, especially when the value is so personally high, is not only the right thing to do, it is inherently the good thing to do.''
Ron asked his son to find an address so he could order a new set of wings. Philip thought about it. He went to the dress uniform he had worn for 22 years and removed his own wings.
He sent them to his dad.
Bill Stevens is the North Suncoast editor. You can reach him at (727) 869-6250 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.