When people mention the Greatest Generation, the kids at Black Elk Elementary know exactly who they’re talking about.
For several years, the Millard students have been pen pals with Richard Slovek, 91, a veteran of World War II.
At an assembly Monday, students, staff and family surprised Slovek, presenting him with replacements for a military ribbon and medal he earned but then lost a half century ago.
Army National Guard Lt. Col. Steven Collins officiated, awarding Slovek the World War II Victory Ribbon and Army Occupation Medal for Germany.
Fourth-grader Charlie Fish, one of the pen-pal buddies, did the honors of pinning them on Slovek’s chest.
According to Slovek’s daughter, Theresa Haack, he graduated early from Omaha South High School in the winter of 1945 and entered the Army.
He shipped out to Europe, where he stayed until he was no longer needed. Upon separating from the military in November 1946, Slovek was homesick and excited to see his sweetheart and future wife, Loretta.
So he took off for home, leaving his personal belongings, including the medals, with a mail clerk to ship back.
“I waited for them, and he never did mail them back,” Slovek said.
His niece, Black Elk third-grade teacher Gina Hill, had initiated the pen pal program with her class.
Hill thought it would be good for her uncle, who lives in an assisted living facility, to get mail. She encouraged the kids to ask him about the war.
It was good for the kids, she said.
“Their writing got better, and once Uncle Rich wrote back, their eyes would light up,” she said.
He could explain to the kids about shared “party line” phones from his day. They could explain about iPads.
Haack said she came up with the idea to replace the medal and ribbon. She learned from letters to the kids how much the lost medals bothered her dad. It made sense to do it at the school.
Slovek, who grew up around the Omaha Stockyards and was an avid outdoorsman, found common ground with Charlie Fish.
So Charlie wrote about his fishing exploits, and Slovek wrote about his favorite fishing holes.
Charlie was a natural to pin the medals. He handled the task without incident.
“I felt nervous to do it,” he said. “And had a lot of pressure on me.”
Afterward, the two had a chance to shoot the breeze while family and school officials took pictures.
“Charlie, you’ve got to come and see me now,” Slovek told the boy. “I’ve got a tackle box. You can go in it, and pick out what you want. You got fishing rods?”
“Yeah,” Charlie answered.
The event left Gina Hill emotional, particularly when the quilt was placed around her uncle’s shoulders.
The quilts are made by volunteers and presented to veterans who’ve been touched by war.
“It was just a lot of love wrapped around him,” she said.
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