Garver’s ‘ordinary’ life yields extraordinary memories
Hugh Garver couldn’t believe anyone would want to read a story about his life.
The 91-year-old thought his military service at the end of World War II, his careers in engineering and teaching and his passion for history that drove numerous trips to Europe would seem ordinary.
“Do you think anybody would be interested in this?” he said.
But eventually, the Altoona native agreed to sit down last week to discuss his life in his home’s basement office. Most people likely would find it far from ordinary.
The story he told began in 1944, when Garver, only a young man, enlisted in the Army, signing up to battle Germany’s Nazi forces in what would be the final years of World War II.
One year later, Garver found himself in Germany, but the Nazis were already defeated.
“At the time, I guess I was a little disappointed in a childish way,” Garver said, explaining that he didn’t see combat while serving in the military from 1945 to 1947.
“In a more mature way now, I’m glad I didn’t get shot at,” he said. “I might not be here.”
The war with Germany may have been over, but conflict with its ally, Japan, continued, and Garver said he and his fellow servicemen were preparing to invade the Pacific island chain.
“We were kids, but we very quickly found out that a lot of us might not make it back from that,” he said.
Those fears soon were dispelled by a decision by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who approved the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The bombings on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9 killed tens of thousands of Japanese citizens, effectively ending the war.
“That solved it all,” Garver said.
Still, Garver remained in Germany, where he served as part of a cannon company, setting up and operating a 105 howitzer artillery piece.
One day, Garver’s company set up its howitzer in a German countryside, and a group of local farmers approached, he said.
“A couple of the clowns in the outfit … started to tell these German farmers, ‘The Russians are coming,'” Garver said, remembering the farmers’ reactions.
“Well, you should have seen the panic. They were petrified,” he said. “It was a dirty trick because the poor guys practically wet their pants.”
The United States and the Soviet Union, of which Russia was the dominant nation, were the two superpowers that emerged from the war.
The Germans were frightened because Russian troops exercised extreme brutality late in the war in retaliation for Nazi atrocities against Soviet citizens.
And at that time, the confrontation that eventually became the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union also was starting up.
But the Russians weren’t coming that day in the German countryside, Garver said.
“I’m glad they weren’t, because we were spread pretty thin,” Garver said.
Last week, Garver remembered his time in the military fondly, and he also expressed his gratitude for the GI Bill, which helped fund his education at Penn State University, where he studied aeronautical engineering, eventually graduating with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“Here in Altoona, I came from a rather poor family,” Garver said. “There was no hope whatsoever that I would ever go on to college.”
After schooling, his career as a structural engineer began with a move to Maryland, where he worked for a company designing airplanes.
Then, in 1957, the Russians launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit.
“Immediately the (U.S.) government canceled airplane contracts left and right,” Garver said, explaining that resources were diverted to the American space industry.
Garver said he and thousands of others lost their jobs as a result.
“It was devastating,” he said, recalling whole communities of homes posted for sale.
Garver still had connections in Altoona, and he returned to work at a local architectural firm, where he spent about 10 years as a structural engineer, designing schools, hospitals and factories.
Garver said he was poised to take over for the firm’s chief engineer, but another opportunity presented itself. He could teach engineering at the Penn State Altoona campus.
“My dad thought I was crazy,” Garver said, revealing that others told him the same. “He said, ‘Hugh, why are you doing this?’ I still went into teaching.”
Until he retired at age 60, Garver worked at the school, teaching two- and four-year engineering students.
It was a job he said he thoroughly enjoyed.
“The boys we worked with in engineering were not troublemakers. They were there not for beer parties, but to learn something to get a good job,” he said. “I enjoyed the majority of them.”
All the time, Garver kept up his engineering gig, too, working as a consultant in addition to teaching.
The consulting helped him to prosper financially, and he continued the work until he turned 79.
“Then my wife said, ‘Look, you’re killing yourself; you’ve got to quit,'” Garver said. “From 79 on, I’ve just been loafing.”
Garver met his wife, Helen (Evey) Garver, at a rehearsal dinner for a family member’s wedding, he said, explaining he immediately noticed her beauty.
“A bunch of young women were in the wedding, and my wife was one of them. I said, ‘Hey you know that Evey girl is pretty nice,'” Garver said, remembering a conversation with the family member. “He said, ‘Knock it off.'”
Garver didn’t knock it off, and, eventually, the two married and had three children: Betsy, Linda and Mark.
This year, the couple celebrated their 66th anniversary, Garver said.
Together, the couple has visited 49 of the country’s 50 states. They haven’t made it to Alaska. They’ve also taken trips to Bermuda, the Virgin Islands and Mexico, Garver said.
But most of their overseas adventures have been to Europe, where Garver’s interest in World War II history drove tours through England, France and Germany.
“We’ve been to Europe seven times,” Garver said. “We certainly have seen a lot of military history.”
Those trips followed the course of Nazi occupation and its effects, which Garver had witnessed during his time in the Army.
“I saw firsthand a lot of the destruction immediately following the war,” Garver said.
In Garver’s basement, all of his interests are represented. Three dimensional puzzles depicting buildings like the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben sat atop a desk.
Models of military planes and tanks lined shelving units, and a globe sat next to an armchair — a reflection of Garver’s worldly travels.
“I build these models, and I give them to my grandchildren,” he said.” Their mothers and dads say, ‘That’s enough. We don’t want any more models.'”
Last week, however, Garver drew attention to one model in particular, a bridge he designed himself without a kit.
The inspiration for the creation, he said, came from viewing the war film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” with his son.
Garver said some people are surprised he designed the bridge without a kit, but it’s a credit to his career in engineering.
His interest in history also manifested in some writing opportunities, including for the Mirror. In 1989, Garver authored an article about the Battle of the Bulge, World War II’s last major German campaign.
The article, titled, “Americans hold own against deadly odds,” begins: “About mid-morning on Dec. 17, the first American position to be abandoned was an artillery battery outside Bockholz. The Germans were so close that the gunners had trouble depressing their howitzers low enough to hit them.”
Occasionally, Garver was at a loss when trying to justify why he made certain life decisions, namely entering the education field, but the 91-year-old was certain of one thing for sure.
“I’d do it all over again,” he said.
Mirror staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.