GUSTINE -- Most folks in this town of 5,500 are familiar with the name Joseph G. Rose. He was Gustine's first casualty in World War II, and the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter is named for him.
But Joe Rose also was a gentle-mannered kid with a great sense of humor, so responsible that he drove the school bus for Gustine High School his senior year.
When he died in the spring of 1943, he had been married only a few months to the former Helen Silva, who was then 19. Helen returned to Gustine just once, in 1948, when Rose's family received his remains and buried him at Hills Ferry Cemetery.
Helen came back Thursday to give the Purple Heart that Rose had earned to the VFW post that bears his name.
Now 89 and a longtime San Francisco resident, Helen Weinkauf said she's at the age where she wants to start "tying up loose ends. I think (giving the Purple Heart to Gustine) is the best thing to do."
About 60 people attended a morning ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Building to watch the Weinkauf family hand over the medal to VFW Commander Kent Madenwald. Rose's Purple Heart will be framed in the same fashion as his photograph in the upstairs meeting room of the VFW hall, where the two will be displayed together.
Weinkauf said she didn't expect such a fuss. "I just thought we'd come and give it to somebody," she said.
Instead, she got the opportunity to see her former in-laws for the first time in 64 years, meet Rose's nieces and introduce them to some of her children before taking a tour of the area and stopping by the cemetery.
"This is a fundamental day for her," said Weinkauf's daughter, Kathy Morello. "She treasured that Purple Heart."
Thursday's ceremony almost didn't happen.
The Weinkaufs weren't sure where to turn to give the medal to the VFW post, so they looked up Gustine Mayor Dennis Brazil and sent him a note on his city email account. Brazil thought it was spam and nearly deleted it.
"But I thought, this is real, it's ... a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Brazil said Thursday.
He got in touch with Pat Snoke, secretary of the Gustine Historical Society and, as Brazil put it, "truly an unbelievable force."
Snoke set up the ceremony, at which family members of both Joe and Helen talked about their history and officials expressed their appreciation for Weinkauf's gesture.
The gathering was emotional, but mostly happy. "This morning, we didn't know each other, and now we're family," Morello said.
After graduating from Gustine High School in 1938, Joe Rose went on to college. He boxed at the University of California at Davis, and was a health enthusiast before that became popular.
"He spent hours hitting the heavy bag," said his niece Diana Brace.
He had moved on to work at a body shop in San Francisco when the Army drafted him in 1941. While stationed at Fort Ord near Monterey, he attended a Portuguese dance, where he met a girl named Helen Silva. They married that October, and it was Helen to whom the Army gave the Purple Heart awarded Rose when he died on May 27, 1943, in the fight to retake the Aleutian Islands of Alaska from the Japanese.
Helen, only 19 at the time, mourned the young husband she'd had only a few months. Her parents and friends lent their support.
"My grandfather was old-school," Morello said. "She wore black and she didn't go out for a year."
Eventually, she met and married George Weinkauf in Hollister. They moved to San Francisco, where George Weinkauf attended law school and the couple had five children. George died in 1998.
Weinkauf lost touch with the Rose family over the years. Joe's sisters married, had children and worked to keep their brother's memory alive. Irene Rose married Wilbur Gomes, a World War II veteran and one of the charter members of the VFW post in Gustine.
"I miss my brother," Irene Gomes said at the conclusion of Thursday's ceremony. "He was my hero."
Modesto Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2343.