SPRING HILL — Ray White considered as junk the military memorabilia his father-in-law dribbled out over the years to White's wife, Mary Anne. White dismissed the lot, didn't want to hear about any of it.
So, Mary Anne White quietly collected Army Capt. John J. Vasilke's service medals and records; newspaper clippings about World War II's European Theater, where the infantryman served; and other bits and pieces of the era. The items ultimately were consigned to the attic of their Virginia home.
Among them, a treasured piece of German history languished with little regard for 71 years.
"I never knew," White marveled as he considered some of the findings recently.
After Mary Anne's death two years ago, White cleared out their attic in preparation for a move to Florida.
"It was in a little velvet bag," he said of a piece of royal blue stained glass bearing a face resembling a gargoyle. It was a complete section, wrapped with lead stripping, measuring maybe 5 by 7 inches.
"The piece looks very eerie," White said, "sort of like a hologram."
Included in the pouch was Vasilke's note, telling of its provenance. In mid 1945, around the time of Germany's surrender, Vasilke and his Timberwolf Division were moving through the city of Cologne, Germany, heavily bombed by the Allies. Ogling the heavily damaged Cologne Cathedral — initial construction dating to 1248 and still the largest Gothic church in northern Europe, subject to 18 aerial hits during the war — Vasilke picked up a section of glass from its blown-out windows. He carried the piece home as a spoil of war.
With the old glass and new knowledge in hand, White admitted to his "avarice streak."
"I put in on eBay," he said. "There were no takers."
Barbara Bealba, a Spring Hill neighbor whom he credited as a moralistic friend, counseled him, "You have to take it back."
White asked his son, Patrick, living in Leipzig, Germany, to make some contacts. Ultimately, Klaus Hardering, director of restoration at the cathedral, which has undergone several additions, substantial upgrades and many refurbishings since its 13th century beginning, responded.
Hardering and Ulrike Brinkmann, head of the cathedral's stained glass conservation studio, expressed excitement on learning of the find. They greeted Ray White, carrying the velvet bag, at his arrival in August.
In an email, Brinkmann wrote: "Our glass painters . . . instantly identified the glass fragment as being the head of a little devil sticking out behind the arm of the bad thief who was hanging on the cross beside Christ."
It was one of about 200 scenes of biblical history, including the life of Christ, designed by Viennese artist Johannes Klein in the 1800s for eight windows embracing the cathedral's main entrance, she explained. The windows, based on surviving medieval drawings and fabricated in Innsbruck, Austria, were installed in 1884.
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Brinkmann continued: "How lucky that Ray's father-in-law detected the piece of glass among the debris field in front of the Cologne Cathedral and picked it up. Returning it to its origins is an unexpected, very generous gesture of the family. . . . (I)t has now returned home, undamaged and well kept!"
White learned that the glass-making process of the 13th century was temporarily lost, not rediscovered until the 1800s, thus enabling the window's construction.
"It's an applique process, plain glass on the back, which gives it a 3-D effect," White said.
The overall window is composed of 36 picture panels in four columns, the devil face from the second panel in the third column.
"This was the biggest piece they'd gotten back," White said.
Brinkmann wrote: "The fragment will be kept in our archives, together with (the) hand-written note (by) Ray's father-in-law."
News of its recovery was published in the church's local magazine and will be published in the next annual yearbook of the Friends of the Cologne Cathedral, which numbers 14,500 members.
The cathedral is a major tourist attraction, White learned, with some 200,000 visitors a year. Perhaps its main draw is a gold reliquary purported to hold the bones of the Three Kings, who visited Jesus at his birth, according to the Bible.
But people come, too, to gaze at the cathedral's 515-foot twin spires, tallest of their kind on a church, and the 107,609 square feet of stained glass windows, one bit of which, said White, had "come home, a piece of history restored."
White, Hardering and Brinkmann are hoping the tale of discovery and return will prompt more of the same. Noting that the recent return spent 71 years in the United States, more pieces may be scattered throughout the world.
Contact Beth Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.