Pa. community recollects memories of area's oldest veteran
SHAMOKIN, Pa. — From his career in the military to being a presidential escort and showing his patriotic pride in local parades, the passing of Ralph Starr is being called a great loss to the community.
"He was one of the last of a dying breed," Jeanne Shaffer, director for the Northumberland County Council for the Arts and Humanities, said. "This was a man dedicated to his country, his community and his family. That is something very rare to find these days."
Starr, of 1120 W. Arch St., Shamokin, passed away Sunday morning at the age of 95. He had been ill for the past three months, and was a resident of Mountain View: A Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for the last six weeks.
Coal Township VFW commander John Schenewerk, who called Starr "truly a class act," said Starr was the oldest living veteran in the Shamokin-Coal Township area before his passing.
"I've lost a very dear friend," said Schenewerk.
Jim Kealy, of Mount Carmel Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2110, could not think of another veteran of Starr's age who is a member of his post.
Belinda Albright, director of veterans affairs for Northumberland County, said she's unable to officially determine if Starr was the oldest veteran in the county because records are incomplete.
Starr joined the U.S. Army in 1940 and, in a 2010 article for The News-Item, remembered being home on a weekend pass when he learned the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
"We never suspected anything was going to take place," Starr said.
He remembered a message from the president amid the news, stating all service members on leave were to report back to their camps immediately. For Starr, it was the Edgewood Arsenal, part of the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
"They kept us there for 30 days," he said in 2010.
During World War II, Starr was transferred to the west coast to work in the Army postal service. He never went overseas because of a condition called hydrarthrosis, commonly known as "water on the knees," but served in active duty until January 1945 and achieving the rank of sergeant.
"It was always great to talk with him and listen to his stories about military life," Schenewerk said. "We never served together, but he was certainly in my band of brothers, like he was with all veterans."
Following his military service, Starr worked for the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, where, among other duties, he served as a tour guide for foreign military visitors.
His work with Army intelligence helped provide him with one of the most exciting moments of Starr's life: serving as a driver in a motorcade for President Richard Nixon on Oct. 24, 1970, in Dundalk, Md. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for him, he recalled in 2006.
"My wife didn't want me to do it again, because it was too risky," Starr said in 2006.
Starr received a special memento of the day, a gold pen with Nixon's signature on it, which he kept in the plastic package it came in. He was once offered $150 for the pen, but turned it down.
It wouldn't be the end of his participation in ceremonial motorcades. Starr enjoyed decorating his vehicle to participate in the annual Anthracite Heritage Festival of the Arts parade each May.
"Ralph was a very patriotic man, always decorating that vehicle himself and showing the pride he had in his country," Shaffer said. "He would decorate that car and dress for the occasion."
In 2012, Starr wasn't able to drive in the parade, but still participated, riding with state Rep. Kurt Masser.
"I met him through the parade and he loved to tell me about his time in the military. He was also a mainstay at many of the veterans functions I hosted and attended," Masser said. "The number of surviving World War II veterans are getting fewer and fewer, and he will certainly be missed."
Schenewerk recalled inviting Starr to participate in a recent Memorial Day march, which caused Starr to beam with pride.
"He was sitting on the porch (of his home), and I asked him if he was coming. He told me that no one invited him from the American Legion. I told him, 'You are invited.' He wanted me to wait while he went back inside and dressed in his suit," Schenewerk said.
The other vets helped Starr into the armored Humvee that was part of the parade.
"He was absolutely thrilled to be riding in that machine, and the two reservists that were driving it were thrilled to listen to his stories," Schenewerk said.
Schenewerk was saddened to hear about the death of his friend and comrade of the last 20 years.
"I can remember looking at Ralph when I found out I was going to be the person taking over the Memorial Day March planning, and he just looked at me and gave me a big thumbs up," Schenewerk said. "He was one of the best, but unfortunately, those of that generation, the Greatest Generation, are passing way too fast."
Starr is survived by several nieces and cousins. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the Farrow Funeral Home, Sixth and Chestnut streets, Shamokin. Visitation will be held from 10 to 11 a.m. Friday at the funeral home. Starr will be buried in Northumberland Memorial Park.