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Man who saved lives during World War II died trying to be at wife’s deathbed

Married for 71 years, Daniel and Valerie Zane died two days apart. Daniel Zane was 94, and Valerie Zane was 91.

NANCIE ZANE/THE WASHINGTON POST

By MERYL KORNFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: May 12, 2020

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Dodging bombs and bullets and surrounded by German enemy soldiers, 19-year-old U.S. Army Pvt. Daniel Zane had one purpose in mind as he bolted 80 yards through an open field on March 2, 1945. A fellow soldier was hurt.

Zane carried the injured man to safety, an act for which he received a Bronze Star.

A long lifetime later, 94-year-old Zane again was unfaltering, never leaving wife Valerie Zane’s bedside during the past year and a half as she neared the end of her seven-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

In March, as the novel coronavirus pummeled nursing homes in the U.S., Valerie Zane’s unit in Haverford, Pa., had not yet had any cases but decided to close its doors to visitors. To continue to see her, he moved out of his independent-living apartment and into a unit below her hospice room. And he stayed, even after a nurse there tested positive for the virus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

Daniel Zane did not want his wife of 71 years to die alone.

Weeks after he moved in, Daniel Zane became fatigued and had trouble breathing. He was taken to a hospital.

On April 15, a day after his test came back positive for COVID-19, Valerie Zane died. Daniel Zane was already unresponsive.

He died two days later.

“He was someone whose loyalty to others — and in this case, to his partner — made him put his own interests and comfort out of his mind in order to do what he thought was the right thing,” said the Zanes’ son-in-law, Stuart Charmé. “He decided his role was beside his wife, and he wasn’t leaving under any circumstances.”

Choosing to stay by his wife’s bedside was a significant risk, given that nearly 1 in 10 nursing homes in the U.S. has reported a case of the virus, which has swept the globe, particularly affecting people older than 65. With a greater risk of serious illness or death from the virus, the Greatest Generation is vanishing — taking with it stories of the Great Depression and World War II. Since 2015, the number of living World War II veterans has plummeted from about 939,000 to a third of that in 2020, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Like Zane, most of these veterans are in their 90s and could be at greater risk of becoming infected by the coronavirus, especially if they have underlying conditions or are living in hot spots.

A year and a half ago, the Zanes moved from their home in White Plains, N.Y., to the assisted-living community to provide better care to Valerie Zane and to be closer to one of their daughters, Nancie Zane, and son-in-law Charmé. Daniel Zane spent his waking minutes of that time doting on Valerie Zane, his family said.

Although he lived in an independent-living apartment until their last few weeks, he was at her bedside every morning until she went to sleep at night. He fed her, wheeled her chair around the facility and made sure she was comfortable.

“He was making sure she wasn’t alone,” Nancie Zane said. “He was right there with her.”

The New York couple married in their 20s and had two daughters, Nancie and Robin Zane. Daniel Zane was born and raised in New York City. He went to Lehigh University at age 16. He then served in World War II. After the war, he attended Fordham University’s law school and was a real estate attorney until his recent retirement. Daniel Zane had his own law firm for about six decades.

Valerie Zane did administrative work in doctors’ offices for three decades. Her family said she was a master at playing bridge.

The couple also enjoyed traveling, reading newspapers and talking to their four grandchildren. Daniel Zane was particularly passionate about sharing his 60 years of legal knowledge with his granddaughter, Tali Charmé-Zane, who is in her first year of law school.

When Charmé-Zane looked at the audience at her mock trial tournaments, there was her grandfather, she said. He gave her a book by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and wrote inside the cover that he hoped it would be the first of many in her law library. When she needed to “phone a friend” in law school, Daniel Zane faithfully answered.

“He was always reliable,” she said, “always there.”

Another constant throughout his life was Daniel Zane’s eagerness to share stories of his time serving in World War II. He told his family about how he fought in the decisive Battle of the Bulge and the time he liberated a concentration camp.

One of the few treasures his family has left from that time is a yellowed military document, written in black typewriter ink, that recalls the heroic feat from 1945 in which he rescued his injured comrade on the battlefield. He received a Bronze Star for that deed, and, his family said, one or two more for other heroic acts.

Aside from the document and a few photos, his tales are all they have left of a significant part of American history, his family fears.

“I know he was one of few World War II veterans who were left,” his daughter Robin Zane said, “and it worries me in terms of lost history, on a very personal level.”

She said the memory of major historical events is under threat with the loss of her father’s generation.

“There will come a time when people will say World War II didn’t happen, or the concentration camps didn’t happen,” Robin Zane said. “He showed me pictures of a concentration camp he liberated when I was a little girl. And now it feels like a dream. But I know it happened.”

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