At 98, Don Waful is one of Syracuse University's oldest surviving wartime vets
At 98, Don is not only one of Syracuse University’s oldest living alumni; he’s also part of a rapidly shrinking group of World War II vets—a feat that engenders in him feelings of pride and melancholy. “There’s nobody left,” he says over lunch at Pascale Italian Bistro at Drumlins. “I’ve outlived my two wives. My family has moved away. And most of my friends and war buddies are gone. I’m all I have left.”
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It’s a snowy afternoon, and Don is huddled over a small table, nursing a bowl of soup. Between sips, he waxes nostalgic about his student days in the College of Arts and Sciences and then the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs; World War II; Syracuse Chiefs baseball; his beloved “Wife No. 1,” Olga “Cassie” Casciolini, to whom he was married 53 years; and “Wife No. 2,” Virginia Hofheins “Ginny” Blick, his college sweetheart who passed away in 2010, after a decade of marriage.
Don may be long in the tooth, but he’s still got spunk. Wrapped in a sensible blazer, a patterned flannel shirt, and waist-high trousers, he almost fits the elderly stereotype. For instance, one would be hard-pressed to see him reaching for a cane or a hearing aid. Don still lives in the same house, near campus, that he bought in 1954. Still drives his own car. And, until recently, he has spent the past 25 years playing trombone in the Rhythm Airs big band.
Not bad for someone whose life was almost cut short as a P.O.W. during World War II. “It was a tough existence,” recalls Don, who was imprisoned for three years in Italy, Poland, and Germany, as well as endured the notorious “March” across Eastern Europe in the winter of 1945. “Between German rations [including “Black German Bread,” made of sawdust, straw, and leaves] and the occasional Red Cross parcel, we lived on 500 calories a day,” he says, scratching his tuft of white hair. “No wonder I lost 35 pounds.”
If Don is feeling a tad sentimental, it’s understandable. In November 2014, he was Chancellor Kent Syverud’s guest-of-honor at the home football game against North Carolina State University. The invitation was a first for Don, who has missed only three home football games since 1946 and has never missed a football game in the history of the Carrier Dome. “Being with the Chancellor was amazing,” he says, cracking a smile. “In all my years of going to football games, I had never been inside the Chancellor’s suite. Kent Syverud is a pleasant man, a gracious host. We talked about sports.”
A week later, Don found himself commemorating another milestone: the 72nd anniversary of the day that changed his life. On Nov. 8, 1942, Don was among the first soldiers of the U.S. Army’s European Theater of Operations (ETO) to set foot on African soil. Their goal? To capture the port cities of Oran and Tunis (in Algeria and Tunisia, respectively), creating an Allied stronghold in the Mediterranean.
“The anniversary of this landing always comes three days before Veterans Day, which gets all the national publicity, as it should,” says Don, a self-described “expendable 2nd Lt.” of Headquarters Company, 1st Armored Division, 13th Armored Regiment. “Nobody really cares anymore about the first ETO troops in North Africa, except for the few of us who are still alive and were there. I probably told three or four people about it, while watching a football game in the Dome. It’s still important to me.”
Not long after arriving in North Africa, Don found himself leading a small platoon—four tanks and 11 men—toward a low-risk area outside of Tunis. “It was supposed to have been a simple milk run,” he recalls, adding that his platoon was relatively inexperienced. “Instead, we walked right into 14 German tanks and a couple of platoons of infantry. They started ‘spraying’ us, so we dove into some foxholes. If I hadn’t put away my pistol, I probably would have been shot.”
Don was captured, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he was terribly lonely. A few months earlier, he had a whirlwind romance in Northern Ireland with Cassie, an attractive nurse with the 5th General Hospital from Boston, Mass. The inspiring story of how they met at a dance and got engaged on their third date, only to be separated for almost three years, virtually sustained Waful during his internment. “I knew I’d never get a ‘Dear John’ letter from her,” he says, with a trace of emotion. “Sixty days with Cassie, and her commitment was as good as gold.”
At the end of the war, Waful managed to escape a P.O.W. camp in Luckenwalde, Germany, and, with help from the American Red Cross, reunited with Cassie in Paris. They were married two days later by the mayor of a small French village—only he didn’t speak English, so an interpreter helped perform the ceremony. The story was not only front-page news in The Stars and Stripes and The Post-Standard in Syracuse, but also the basis for a period musical titled I’ll Be Seeing You, which has been performed in Philadelphia and Syracuse.
Diane Tauser, who wrote the book, lyrics, and music, says the show is inspiring on multiple levels. "In the summer of ’42, Don was a handsome, 26-year-old tank commander, and Cassie was a beautiful, 24-year-old nurse. The story of how they met and then were torn apart for three years, during the prime of their lives, is extraordinary," says Tauser, an accomplished Manhattan dramatist. "It shows the enduring love between two people, against all odds."
In 2002, I'll Be Seeing You played to sold-out audiences at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, thanks, in part, to Bryan Perri (music director and conductor of the Broadway production of Wicked), who supervised the score and provided special musical arrangements. Since then, the critically acclaimed show has received several readings on Broadway that have been directed and choreographed by Jeremy Benton, a student of the legendary Randy Skinner.
"Don has been like a father figure to me. I'd do almost anything for him," Tauser adds.
Like many GIs, Don went through the bumpy process of readjusting to civilian life. He credits much of his re-entry to Albert C. “Uncle Al” Deisseroth ’21, a larger-than-life figure who, among other things, was founding director of the Syracuse University Alumni Glee Club.
Established in 1937, the club became affiliated with Deisseroth and Syracuse two years later. That’s when 23-year-old Don signed on as its youngest member. (“Uncle Al said I had a ‘chord sense,’” he says. “We toured up and down the East Coast and sang everything from memory. The crowds would go wild.”) After the war, Don went to work for Deisseroth at The Bruns Insurance Agency, as well as resumed singing with the group until its demise in 1958.
Twenty years his senior, Uncle Al was like a father figure to Don. It was Deisseroth, also co-owner of the Syracuse Nationals basketball team, who sparked Don’s interest in sports management. Thanks to Deisseroth, Don had ringside seats at the acquisition of the Syracuse Chiefs baseball club in 1961. “The Brooklyn Dodgers owned a team in Montreal that they were selling for cheap,” he says, recalling the absurdly low $50,000 price tag. “Still, Uncle Al didn’t want to lose his shirt, so he convinced Mayor Henninger to make the team publicly owned. It was a brilliant move and resulted in one of the first community franchises in the country.” Don got in on the ground floor and, by 1970, was team president—a position he held for more than 35 years.
When it comes to baseball, Don doesn’t mince words. Just ask Sean Kirst, who’s written several stories about him for The Post-Standard. This past fall, when Kirst was covering the International League playoff game between the Chiefs and Pawtucket Red Sox, Don sought him out and demanded to know where all the spectators had been during the regular season. “It's amazing to have a razor-sharp 98-year-old not only showing up for the game, but also ready to argue once he's there,” Kirst wrote.
Kirst says he admires Don’s “fierce, distinct, and insightful opinions” about the realities of minor league baseball. “Certainly, I appreciate the power of his personal story, and I’m in awe of the history he has seen and survived,” Kirst says, “but what makes him so extraordinary is the way he brings that vast perspective to the community … in a vital, sometimes provocative, and flat-out fearless way.”
Whether peddling insurance or running a baseball club, Don is known for his relentless moxie. With the latter, he is perhaps best remembered for his involvement with the design and construction of the 11,000-seat NBT Bank Stadium, which opened in 1997. (“It was really the brainchild of Anthony ‘Tex’ Simone,” Don says self-effacingly. “Many people were involved, but it was ‘Tex,’ then the Chief’s general manager, who knew how to deal with New York State, Onondaga County, the City of Syracuse, and Major League Baseball. He hung it all together.”) Both jobs had their perks and kept Don in close contact with his alma mater. That some of his clients were University elite, such as Chancellor William P. Tolley, Newhouse dean Henry Schulte, football coach Ben Schwartzwalder, and basketball coach Lewis Andreas, has made for colorful stories.
To Don, the mere mention of Syracuse Athletics brings back a flood of memories, mostly involving football. He recalls the magical season of 1938, when critical plays by Wilmeth Sidat-Singh ’39 and others led to a comeback win over heavily favored Cornell; three weeks later, Syracuse beat archival, Colgate, 7-0 for the first time in 14 seasons.
Don also remembers Syracuse’s epic 32-31 win over West Virginia in 1987 in the Carrier Dome, where Michael Owens ‘89 took an option pitch from quarterback Don McPherson ’87 and sprinted into the end zone for a two-point conversion play, capping off an unbeaten regular season. “Owens ran it for two, right by my seats,” Don says, with a twinkle in his eye. “I could’ve reached out and hugged him.”
Then there’s the Syracuse University Marching Band, whose pregame performances on the steps of Hendricks Chapel Don has attended almost as faithfully as the games themselves. (Never mind the fact that Don first laid eyes on Ginny at a Hendricks Chapel social in 1937, but didn’t marry her until 60 years later.) Surely, the sight of an orange-speckled centenarian, “getting his groove on” to band arrangements of Stairway to Heaven and Gimme’ Some Lovin’ should melt the heart of even the most hardened musical purist.
“If Don only knew what some of these songs sounded like when they originally came out, he’d have a fit,” says longtime friend Michael Byers G’71, noting Don’s strong aversion to rock music. “I’ve thought about burning him a CD of some of these songs by the original artists, but I don’t want to give him a heart attack.”
Of all Don’s University connections, he probably has treasured his one with Tolley the most. Like Deisseroth, the Chancellor was a respected leader who understood the value of civic engagement—something that permeated Don’s liberal arts training. Taking his cue from Tolley, Don went on to hold leadership roles with numerous organizations, including the Syracuse Alumni Association, United Way of Central New York, American Red Cross of CNY, YMCA of Greater Syracuse, the New York State Council of Churches, and Hope College in Michigan (where he has served as a trustee), to name a few.
“It’s created an interesting and varied life,” Don says of his public service. He’s particularly proud of his involvement with The Reformed Church of Syracuse (RCS) on Teall Avenue, where the pastor handpicked him to oversee construction of the current facility. More recently, he established a fellowship room in memory of Cassie, with whom he had two boys: Peter and Don.
Byers, who has attended RCS for more than four decades and teaches mathematics at Onondaga Community College, marvels at Don’s longevity. “He’s a strong, principled person who subscribes to a certain quality of life,” says Byers, during a recent phone interview. “He’s also a ‘survivor,’ in many respects. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something in his genetic makeup that, combined with healthy behaviors, helps him deal with adversity.”
Don thinks the key to longevity is routine. “I try to do something worthwhile every day, and then I take a nap,” he says. “This way, I’m able to stay up late and do the things I love: reading, watching TV, and listening to my Big Band records.”
Maybe it’s the simple things that keep him going. Case in point: When word got out that he’s a fan of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly ’92, an autographed photo of her recently appeared at his doorstep, thanking him for his military service. “It was a pretty nice Veterans Day surprise,” he admits with a grin. “Now I have a picture of a third woman, in addition to Cassie’s and Ginny’s, which I can admire in my living room. I'm a lucky guy.” - See more at: http://asnews.syr.edu/newsevents_2014/releases/don_waful_profile.html#sthash.cMrjji3s.dpuf