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World War II Battle of Bulge vet from Iowa prepares to hit 100

By MELODY PARKER | Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier | Published: March 20, 2021

HAZLETON, Iowa (Tribune News Service) —  Ralph Kephart will celebrate his 100th birthday on March 31.

A World War II combat veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, Kephart is excited about watching from his living room window as friends and neighbors "drive by and honk" from 1 to 3 p.m. March 27. His sons, Ralph Jr. and Dean, also have asked folks to send Kephart a birthday card in time for his centennial birthday. They'd like him to receive 100 cards.

"My legs don't work so good anymore, so if anybody drives by and honks, well, I'm happy to sit here and wave at them. I'm not so sure what to do with 100 cards. I've already got 25 of 'em," said Kephart, who otherwise is healthy. He lives on his own and eats "pretty much" what he wants.

"I love pizza. When Ralph comes, he brings a pizza. Maybe he'll bring one for my birthday. That's alright with me. Dean's supposed to come down, so whatever they want to do is alright with me."

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Dean Kephart of Minneapolis describes his dad as "a very social guy with lots of friends. We wanted some way to celebrate his 100th birthday in a way that would be safe in times of COVID-19. That was number one. We felt like a gathering was inappropriate, so we sent out postcards and used social media to see if we can get the 100 cards and people driving past and waving. If it's a nice day, he could be on the front porch."

Born in Oran, Ralph Kephart's family moved to a 20-acre vegetable farm near Oelwein before moving to Hazleton, where he has lived since 1933. At 17, Kephart worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps helping to build Backbone State Park near Strawberry Point. He went into the U.S. Army a year later, serving as a combat engineer with Company E, 17th Armored Engineer Battalion in the Second Armored Division during World War II.

He landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy several days after the D-Day landings. His battalion's job was inflating large floating pontoons used as bridges for the armored division to cross rivers as it advanced into Europe. He also saw action during the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive campaign from December 1944 to January 1945 in the forest region of the Ardennes in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Kephart served for three years in Europe and North Africa and received six battle stars.

"World War II was a long time ago and sometimes now it's hard for me to remember all the details, the names and stories," the veteran said. After the war, the soldier returned home and worked as an auto mechanic and later taught auto mechanics at Calmar's Vocational-Technical School, now Northeast Iowa Community College. He also completed his college degree.

"I'm still a car guy at heart. I still like to get out and drive," Kephart said. He's a familiar face at the Burger King in Independence and McDonalds in Oelwein where he drives for lunch. His legs began to fail several years ago after a bout with pneumonia. Now he rides an exercise bike daily in the winter to keep fit and rides around town on a three-wheel bike during spring, summer and fall.

"What I like to do is find some people I can visit with — that's one reason I ride is so I can see someone along the way and stop and talk. I lost my second wife two or so years ago, and it's pretty doggone lonesome," Kephart explained.

He married his sweetheart, Margaret Solomon, after dating her for six months. She was a first-grade teacher at Hazleton Elementary School until her retirement. They had two sons and several grandchildren. She died in 1999 after battling cancer.

Throughout his life, Kephart has enjoyed wood carving, using his lathe to turn candlesticks and bowls and making wooden toys and other pieces. He tinkered with televisions and CB radios and still loves technology, especially computers.

"He is a man of amazing curiosity and explored many emerging technologies and hobbies," said Dean. "Two months ago, I bought him a handheld audio recorder and gave him two pages of questions from his earliest memories all the way through. I thought it would keep his brain sharp."

A member of Masonic Lodge, Kephart served on the Hazleton town council and was a member of the volunteer fire department, as well as superintendent of Sunday School at his Methodist church. Other hobbies included golf, archery (making his own arrows) and bowling. He also played guitar, bass guitar and harmonica and sang in a band.

"When I was a child, he and the band would play dances nearly every weekend. I think he cleared something like $25 a night. I remember being woken up backstage and carried to the car when the dance was over. In retirement, he and the band traveled to more than 17 nursing homes across northeast Iowa to entertain the residents," Dean recalled. His mom was the band's booking agent and played autoharp.

For many years, the Kepharts organized a hootenanny that drew hundreds of people every Friday night at Hazleton's American Legion Hall. Margaret was responsible for all the food shared at the end of each evening.

Kephart married again in 2000 after meeting Margaret Prahm at the Hazelton Post Office, although she'd lived down the street from him for many years. She passed away two years ago.

When asked about his own longevity, Kephart laughed. "I don't know why I've lived so damned long. I can't tell you why I've lived longer than anyone else in my family. I really didn't take care of myself — smoked until I was in my 60s and just lived my life. I think it's because the Lord thinks I'm an ornery cuss."

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