“A Charmed Life:” Howard Hetzel turns 100 years old

Courtesy of Sally Hetzel Darmody

TOMAHAWK – “Life can be tough, but you work hard and have some fun along the way, and everything works out.” This is a quote from Howard Hetzel, and really, the way he leads his life and taught his children.

Early life

Howard Stewart Hetzel was born Feb. 16, 1920 to Hazel and Albert Jacob (A.J.) Hetzel in Almond, Wis. He was the third child of seven children and the only son. His middle name, Stewart, was his mother’s maiden name. It is English/Scottish, and it was a fairly common practice to give first sons the mother’s maiden name.

The family of four children (Harriet, Jeanette, Howard and Jane) moved to Tomahawk in 1924 when Howard was four years old. Audrey, Joyce and Marlyn were born after the move to Tomahawk. They lived in three different houses and moved into their final home on North Street in 1929.

The family business was started in 1910 in Almond by brothers A. J. and Edward Hetzel. In 1913, A.J. began drilling wells in Tomahawk. The business in Almond couldn’t support the two families, so A.J. and Hazel moved to Tomahawk to set up their A.J. Hetzel’s Well Drilling business. In 1930, A.J. started doing plumbing as well, and the name changed to Hetzel’s Plumbing and Well Drilling.

In high school, Howard played basketball and football, the only sports they had at the time.

“I started football my freshman year. They did not hire a coach, but past players would help out and coach,” Howard said.

Howard also worked for his dad. “What I did, Dad didn’t have to do,” Howard said. “Once in a while he would give me a dollar or two. I wanted a watch, so I went to the jewelers and would put payments down on it. I had two payments left and the jeweler let me take the watch and just pay the rest later.”

After high school graduation, he went to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to study engineering. He spent one semester at the university and then had to return home to help his father in his well drilling and plumbing business.

Military service in WWII

Howard was drafted into the Army in 1941 and was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., for basic training. He had a reaction to the tetanus shot all the recruits got and was in the hospital at Fort Bragg on Dec. 7, 1941, the day that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. The United States declared war on Japan the following day.

He was the only one in his platoon that knew how to use a survey transit, so he was sent to Fort Knox, Ky., to join the 51st Field Artillery, 1st Armored Division. From there, the troops were sent to New Jersey, where they shipped out on May 26, 1942. They landed in Northern Ireland and spent some time there. Then they moved on to New Castle on the Tyne River, England.

From England, they shipped out to Algeria, Northern Africa, to begin fighting the war.

Howard was a Staff Sergeant. He served in the 51st Field Artillery, 1st Armored Division as a Forward Observer for the artillery, directing the fire of the artillery by giving the coordinates and the distance to fire for the artillery men to set up the guns.  Howard was also a mail clerk in his outfit. He had to make up reports on how much money each soldier was sending out and account for it.

From Africa, went to Italy, near Rome. While in Rome, Howard and some buddies befriended a Swiss guard at the Vatican. He gave them a tour of the Vatican from top to bottom, including the catacombs under the Vatican and the Pope’s living quarters. Howard and the others met the Pope in the hallway and shook his hand. The Pope asked if they had anything they wanted him to bless. Howard had purchased a cameo for his girl back home, June Kniskern, so he had that blessed by the Pope. June, being Catholic, treasured this special cameo and wore it at their wedding.

The war in Italy ended in May 1945. Howard and other soldiers in his unit were able to stay in a hotel in a town they were in. June and Howard corresponded with letters during the war, and Howard carried the letters with him. In a letter to June at the end of the war, while he was staying in the hotel, he wrote to June, “I just reread all your letters and then I burned them. That’s what I do when I get too many to carry.” June received the letter about Howard staying in a hotel in a room with a balcony that he could stand on and see the Alps. She wrote back to him and mused, “Perhaps it is the honeymoon suite.”

While in Italy, Howard was injured in the leg by a piece of shrapnel, earning a Purple Heart.

After the war

When the war ended, Howard was sent back to Africa, where he was able to get on an ambulance plane to fly back home. Howard’s flight from Africa to Rio de Janiero, Brazil was a rough ride through a storm. From Brazil they flew to Jacksonville, Fla. They were then transferred to a train headed to Chicago, where Howard received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army on June 22, 1945. He took a bus from Chicago to Michigan City, Ind., to meet up with the love of his life, June Kniskern, on her birthday, June 22, 1945. After hearing news that the war was near the end, Howard wrote in all his letters to June that he would make it home in time to celebrate her birthday.

They traveled to Tomahawk, where Howard grew up and where they had met. They were married on July 21, 1945 in Rapid River, Mich., where June grew up.

Settling in Tomahawk

Howard and June settled in Tomahawk, buying the house next to his childhood home for $700. Over the years there were many remodels, additions and changes made to the home. Their first baby, Dallas Marie (named after her maternal grandfather), was born June 8, 1946. Sally Ann (named by her paternal grandmother) followed on Oct. 24, 1947. Alan Joseph (A.J., named for his paternal grandfather’s initials) was born Aug. 23, 1949. Bruce Anthony was born April 11, 1951 and Mary Alice (middle name for June’s youngest sister, Alice) was born Dec. 27, 1953. David Howard (David for Howard’s grandfather and Howard for his dad) was born Dec. 29, 1955.

When Howard returned from service, he returned to work with his father. He eventually bought the well drilling business in 1954 and later acquired the plumbing business in 1962. June did the bookkeeping for the business, which included billings and payroll. In 1985, the business changed hands once again when Howard retired and sold Hetzel Plumbing to sons Bruce and David. Bruce’s oldest son, Todd, who went to work for the business full-time in 1997, has now purchased the business from Bruce and David, becoming the fourth generation to own it. Hetzel’s Plumbing and Heating is the oldest continuing business in Tomahawk.

‘A Man for the Ages’

After raising their family, Howard and June traveled extensively throughout the United States, towing their Air Stream camper. They spent the winters in Alamo, Tex., for many years. They made many new friends in Texas, and June’s sister, Alice Bergeron from Rapid River, Mich., spent many winters with them.

Howard still travels to California and Idaho to visit family. He reads the USA Today News on his iPad as well as Bleacher Report to follow his favorite sports teams. He uses a cell phone to keep in contact with family and friends. He is truly a ‘man for the ages.’

Howard had many brushes with death. He feels he has led a charmed life, being lucky enough to live through pneumonia, close calls during three years of deployment in World War II and a work-related accident, when he lost part of his pinky finger.

There was more to Howard than just being a soldier, family man, master plumber, heating expert and businessman.

He was a member of the American Legion for 72 years and was the Commander of the group for a year. He belonged to the Masons for 44 years and was a member of the Shriners for 40 years. Of that 40 years, he was a clown for 20 years. The group of clowns of the Shriners would travel around Wisconsin and participate in parades, entertaining children. This is how they would earn money to help support the Shriners Children’s Hospitals. There are 22 hospitals in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Howard served on the Board of Public Works in the Town of Tomahawk for five years. Following in his father’s footsteps, Howard was also an elected official (alderman) of the City Council of Tomahawk for 10 years.

One of Howard’s hobbies was woodworking. He did that for many years, building cupboards for the remodel of their kitchen and many other projects. He built gun cabinets for many of the men in the family. He also built an end table with two drop leaves and a decorative heart cutout on both sides for each of his six children and 19 grandchildren and many more friends. He has also built an outhouse for a friend’s camp and other items that people asked him for. He continued this hobby until he was 97.

Howard also enjoyed playing golf. He started when he was 50 years old on July 4. When he turned 83 he got his first hole-in-one on July 15, so he knew it took him 33 years and 11 days to get it! He quickly added two more hole-in-ones. He continued playing until he was 93. He and his grandson Todd played league golf as partners at Edgewater Golf Club in Tomahawk for two years. Prior to that, he played with his friend Dr. Francisco for 30 years and they won the championship several times.

Howard is a diehard Green Bay Packer fan and attended many games at Lambeau Field over the years, including the famous ‘Ice Bowl,’ which was the NFL Championship and a forerunner to the Super Bowl. Howard has also attended three Super Bowls that the Packers played in (New Orleans, La., San Diego, Calif., and Dallas, Tex.).

Howard and June were married 68 ½ years, from July 21, 1945 to Jan. 25, 2014 when June passed away. This union produced six children, 19 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

Howard’s “charmed life” was very productive, happy and filled with a wonderful legacy to be admired.

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