Mike Tharp: The man who raised his hand and stepped forward

May 2, 2009 

The first rule you learn in the military is simple:

Never volunteer. Don't ever raise your hand or take that step forward when an officer or NCO begins a sentence, "I need a..."

First rule, right?

So why has Wayne Hein, 95 in June, spent his life -- after a long military career, then a productive civilian one -- breaking that first rule?

All he's done, it seems, is volunteer.

Merced's General Plan Review Committee. Capital Improvement Study Committee. Main Street Improvement Plan Committee. Citizens Advisory Committee. Sister City Committee chair. Merced County Academic Decathlon. A dozen or more similar engagements.

You get his drift. Four decades of unpaid, selfless service to our community. Most retirees would be content to garden or build model airplanes or help raise their grandkids.

Instead, Lt. Col. (ret.) Hein has built a third and even a fourth career by devoting his time, energy, ideas and effort to make the place he's called home since 1977 a better place to live.

Sure, he's been honored over the years, as he should have been. Now he's getting yet another award. In July, he'll be given the Daughters of the American Revolution Outstanding Veterans-Patient Award.

The award is given to a disabled veteran in recognition of outstanding achievement in personal, professional and in family life after a disability. The veteran has to have made important contributions of leadership, patriotism and increased public awareness of veteran patients.

The DAR's choice had to be easy. Hein, as acute mentally as any of the academic decathlete kids he's quizzed over the years, physically able to rise time after time from the couch in his and wife Mary's living room to fetch a document, a book -- Wayne Hein is nothing less than a marvel.

Those of us who creak to our feet after a Stairmaster session at the gym ... Those of us who display "Halfheimer's disease" trying to remember the name of someone we just met...

All we can do is enjoy a sense of wonderment at this man's achievements and spirit.

How does he do it? Why has he done it?

"I've always been interested in volunteering," he understates. "Part of the genes, I guess -- helping out people."

He grew up in Spickard, Mo., a town then of 800 some 130 miles east of Kansas City. He rode a Shetland pony to high school. Like some Mercedian high schoolers, he was a dropout. Had to. Had to help on the farm his freshman year. Also had the flu.

Then "a girl I was holding hands with once in awhile" happened to live across the street from the school superintendent. They met. "You start as a sophomore," the man told him. When Hein graduated, he was valedictorian of his 12-person class.

Every day, twice, he had to prod that pony to plod over a wooden bridge across a river. The bridge was fissured with cracks. From age 13 to 17, he'd look down, probably 400 times, at that river tumbling over the rocks. Through those cracks that could trap a pony's hoof. Maybe send them both into the brown water below.

If any youthful memory can be said to have prepared Wayne Hein for what followed in life, that would be it.

Look down. See danger. Move on. Get across the bridge.

The lesson learned came in handy during World War II.

In 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in Fresno, where he'd graduated from college that June, after working on a farm in Planada for about a year. He did a short tour on a donut-shaped island in the Pacific, then an inspection school back in Florida. That led him to Townsville, Australia, in 1944 for duty as an inspector.

He stayed a first lieutenant until he was promoted to captain in 1946 before joining the reserves. He was recalled to active duty five years later during the Korean War. Over the next several years Hein served in Wiesbaden, Germany, and Misawa, Japan, before retiring as a major in 1967. He got his lieutenant colonel's silver oak leaves in the reserves.

In all, he served in campaigns in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

He met Mary, whose wit and energy match his own, in L.A., where he was selling insurance and she was working in a downtown restaurant. Today, you can tell Mary was a beauty, from Slovakia -- "not Czechoslovakia!" she makes clear.

Hein has been the moving force behind our Veterans Day parade, picking each grand marshal, who has to be older than 80.

"Why give it to a kid?" he asks.

The unheralded parts of the man's life impress an observer the most. After high school he went to Chillicothe Business School on a $50 scholarship, but had to drop out when the money ran out. Worked the 1935 harvest at Joe Keller's farm in Blairsburg, Iowa. Put himself through Fresno State by working at the same restaurant for four years.

His literary bent may come from being the editor of the college yearbook for three years, along with a half-dozen other extracurricular presidencies and vice presidencies. He later got an MBA from Golden Gate College in 1969.

What's he think about what's going on now, in Merced County and in America?

He's glad "that racetrack (RMP) is dead -- it was in the wrong place." He's all for the Wal-Mart distribution center: "If it doesn't come here, it'll go somewhere else." He's been an aggressive promoter of historical preservation projects.

And America, which he's served for nearly a century? "There are crooks behind every fence post," he grimaces. He's a lifelong Republican, but believes in such libertarian ideas as abolition of the income tax in favor of a consumer tax on what we buy.

Hein praises some local projects, such as the downtown parking garage, but he's "afraid of the mindset of so many (local leaders). My main concern is design."

Rep. Dennis Cardoza entered Hein's name in the Congressional Record in August 2005. Among other plaudits, Cardoza hailed him as "a champion of veterans' issues." Hein started our chapter of the National Association of Uniformed Services. He was its president for nine years.

He keeps 34 historical binders for their daughters, Diana, Stephanie and Patricia. He's listed, among other entries, every car he's ever owned and every address where he's ever lived. At the top of one page, he wrote: "Behind the Eight-Ball -- Some People Are Born To Be Just Unlucky." It was about being frozen in rank without promotion while in the Air Force.

Now he can start a new binder.

It could be headed:

"Missing the cracks in a wooden Missouri bridge: How to make your community and country better."

Lt. Col. Hein, we salute you, sir.

You raised your hand and stepped forward.

You volunteered.

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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