HANSEN — Steve Gerritsen always wanted to serve his country.
“I came from a big military family,” Gerritsen said. His father served in the Army in Korea, Company K, 55th Infantry, 3rd Division, and his uncle did tours in both Korea and Vietnam.
But Gerritsen’s own service in the Marines was cut short. “I flew out of Omaha into Pendleton, and I lasted just two weeks,” he said, sent home via medical discharge.
However, Gerritsen’s interest in the military goes beyond service to his country.
He is an auctioneer specializing in Civil War items, and the history caught — and held — his attention. And a quiet, but meaningful, part of that history is found just about in his own backyard in the form of an 88-year-old World War II veteran and artist, Pvt. Ken Hegwood.
And when Hegwood, whom Gerritsen has known since Gerritsen was 14, needed help, there was really no question about how Gerritsen would respond.
An artist’s shop gone up in flames
The morning of June 30, Hegwood was focused on soldering a stem on an enlisted disc, which depicts the unit to which a particular person belongs. While modifying a paratrooper’s disc, a recently turned-off burner just set aside interacted with an aerosol can of dry graphite.
“It blew up in my face,” Hegwood said.
Hegwood ran to get the hose just outside the shop door. When he returned, a wall of flame blocked his entrance.
“It hit a lot of paper goods, and there were a lot of aerosol cans and saw bits on the desk, and I couldn’t get back in,” Hegwood said.
Hegwood did get a bit of shrapnel in his arm in the process, and what “feels like a sunburn” where the hair on his arms was singed off, but otherwise escaped unharmed.
It took the fire department 45 minutes to arrive.
“If they’d been here in 20 minutes or 30 minutes, we could’ve saved a lot,” Hegwood said. “Everything went.”
A little more than 300 helmets were in the shop at the time — about 100 original helmets and 200 or so of Hegwood’s hand-painted helmets — and although the steel helmets survived, the artwork on them did not. Hegwood spent the past few months carefully restoring pieces of his collection that could be recovered.
Part of that collection included several sets of World War I and World War II dog tags, some of which were lost.
“Sixty World War I sets were in there when it caught fire; I saved probably 10 sets is all, because they’re aluminum and they melt,” Hegwood said. The steel dog tags from World War II, however, largely survived intact, covered in rust and ash.
Bayonets from various fighting forces required work to remove the rust, and Civil War horse bits had to be refinished. Some of his coin collection survived; most of it did not.
“The metal survived, unless it was sterling silver or lead,” Hegwood said. A collection of “dime store” soldiers, of which Hegwood had nearly a full set, melted completely. “The money isn’t … the history is what I miss.”
Everything not made of metal is gone, save for any copies Hegwood had made and given to others as gifts. Photos, papers, display cases … lost within minutes.
“The biggest thing with him, I’ll tell you, is the history that was lost,” Gerritsen said. “And it was not only the military history; it was the history of the town of Hansen, Nebraska. It was the schoolkids from 1900s, the livery stable, the general store, the old bank that sits here on the corner, etc.”
Gerritsen was on site the morning of July 1, and he’s put in 10- and 12-hour days every day since — “about 7,200 hours” by his own estimate — clearing debris, recovering what could be recovered and helping Hegwood sift through the remains of his workshop and collection.
“The only thing I could give Ken in this instance was my time,” Gerritsen said. “I promised him that I’d build the building; I’ve kept my promise to him.”
Calling in the cavalry … er, contractors
Hastings-born retired Army Col. Frederic Drummond has known Hegwood for about 20 years. Drummond was a young lieutenant when his dad introduced them.
“He’s a very quiet professional,” Drummond said, “and the minute I heard his building burned down, I immediately starting calling folks and arranging this activity that’s going on.”
Drummond heard about the fire from Gerritsen, with whom he went to high school.
“He knew I knew Ken, ‘cause Ken had mentioned my name to him,” Drummond said. “I hadn’t seen Steve in 40 years, so it’s a sorta very unique 1980 Tigers class reunion, helping out this veteran.”
It didn’t take long for Drummond of Tampa, Florida, to jump in and literally get his hands dirty.
“Right after his building burnt down, I flew in probably a week later,” Drummond said. “One, to be with him, and two, just to reassure him that we’re gonna do something.”
At the time, Drummond wasn’t sure what that something might be. But after seeing the scope of the damage, he knew what had to be done.
“I’m an engineer. It was a call of action to bring people together.”
Drummond created a 3D model of the shop, which he sent to major building supply companies he thought might be willing to sponsor such a project. He also sought donations and volunteers on social media.
“One thing we (Gerritsen, Drummond and Justin Osborne) didn’t want is we didn’t want him (Hegwood) to sit there and have no purpose in life,” Gerritsen said. “He’s one of the greatest artists I’ve ever seen.”
The plan came together over 4-1/2 months, working around COVID-19 restrictions and the time it took to put together specifications and details, such as where supplies were coming from, how long it would take and who would be involved.
“We have the riots, we have COVID, we have fires in Washington state, Oregon, Colorado and Wyoming, all over. Lumber prices have tripled, at least,” Gerritsen said. “And it wasn’t ‘No, I’m busy.’ It was ‘What can I do?’”
Home Depot was not the only lumber and supplies provider to whom Gerritsen and Drummond reached out, but it was the first company to respond.
And the response was enthusiastic.
“It’s great for all of us to come here and volunteer time and labor and everything else,” said Dalton Boden of Omaha-based Moose Roofing. “But with Home Depot coming in and donating all of the materials and supplies to actually get the job done, that is huge. We cannot thank them enough.
“We can bring a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but when it comes to actually ordering correctly and dropping off an entire brand-new building, that takes a lot of skill and we’re very thankful for their involvement.”
It’s a volunteer effort
It took a month for the volunteers to coordinate.
“That’s the unique beauty with contractors,” Drummond said. “It’s a very unique business that we’re in, and it’s a very tight business. They all want to help veterans, and this is a classic example.”
Moose Roofing employees Dan Wolford and Boden heard about the barn-raising effort from a friend of Boden’s, Capt. Zackary Klapperich, especially regarding the need for roofing contractors.
Boden’s response was simple: “There’s no way we can’t be involved in helping this guy.”
Moose Roofing provides community outreach and charity events, including involvement in building Habitat for Humanity homes, and this was one more opportunity to provide a much-needed service to someone in need, especially when that someone is a veteran.
Despite having at least 16 jobs scheduled this week, Moose Roofing was adamant about sending in helping hands. The company employs eight military personnel, and Pat Muhs, the owner, is a former state trooper. Those military connections sent Boden, a captain in the Nebraska National Guard, and Wolford, an Air Force veteran, 2-1/2 hours west to Hansen, Nebraska.
“It doesn’t matter when it is or what it takes,” Boden said. “We will be here to help Ken.”
Before Monday, however, Boden knew about Hegwood only through his friend Steffan Baker in Ord, whose business, Prairie Flower Leather Co., also restores military helmets.
“He makes the World War I helmet liners and custom engravings, and stuff like that, and Ken was actually how he got started,” Boden said. “So I’d heard his name and everything else, but I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him until (Sunday).”
Contractor crews working up a sweat
Monday saw the group separate into two crews: one focused on framing the building atop the concrete pad, and the other built the trusses that would form the roof, which was to be shingled Tuesday.
Trent Meyer of Trent Meyer Construction led the first crew and Craig Hubbard of Hubbs Repair LLC led the second. Both contractors are based in Hastings, just 9 miles south of Hansen. Neighbors, you might say.
Meyer saw Drummond’s request for volunteers on Facebook. As a contractor who had known Drummond for years, he sent a message back saying he’d be able to lend a hand for a few days, and “here I am.”
Meyer works with both residential and commercial repairs and additions, everything short of building a house. So something the scale of Hegwood’s workshop was right in his wheelhouse.
“We’ve got a lot of people who know exactly what’s going on here, and we couldn’t do it without having everybody here,” he said. “I’ve been friends with Craig Hubbard for years, and we would never consider each other competition. Some of these guys I just met (Monday) for the first time, and they’re a great group to work with.”
‘We got the technical job’
Hubbard also got involved because of the Facebook post. The son of a veteran, he said “it just seemed like a good cause. I decided we could donate a day to it.”
While he didn’t know Hegwood before Monday, Hubbard did know Drummond and Garritsen. That was enough for him to bring four employees and his father and brother, who run Hubbard Insulation Service in Lexington.
Wally Hubbard spent 40 years in the Nebraska National Guard. In 2004-05, he served in Kuwait.
“I don’t know how (Craig) got pulled into (the project), but he called me,” Wally Hubbard said. “I told him we’d come. It’s just pretty much helping out somebody who needs it. Whether it’s a veteran or somebody else, when they’re up there in years, that’s getting to be pretty old.”
Wally Hubbard’s been in construction “in one form of another” since his early 20s. “I was a bricklayer for a while, and I decided cutting boards was a lot easier,” he said.
Between the father-and-sons’ effort and that of their crew, 21 trusses were constructed Monday, creating additional storage in the workshop attic. “We got the technical job, I guess,” Craig Hubbard said.
Normally, the trusses would be premade and shipped to the construction site, but due to timing and high demand, Craig Hubbard’s crew measured, cut and constructed them to size on site.
The very definition of a ‘community effort’
On Friday, after 4-1/2 days of hard labor and the contributions of 70 to 80 volunteers from around the region, only the finishing touches were left to put in place.
“They’re doing the garage door today (Friday) and two doors and some more trim, and that’s it,” Hegwood said. “But basically, in four days, they had everything except a little metal to go on the side of the doors. A lot of teamwork, a lot of good old veterans.”
In addition to adding 2 feet of overhead space, the new workshop also has overhead fans, better lighting, updated heaters and a new fireproof cabinet in which to store Hegwood’s more flammable materials. A new garage door will allow him to back up his van — a donation from Osborne to replace the one destroyed in the fire — for easier loading and unloading.
“I’m getting too old to hang the doors anymore, like the garage doors and all that, but I can still paint,” Hegwood said. He plans to take that project a little bit at a time, in addition to putting oak trim around his windows and doorframes.
And the walls eventually will hold memorabilia once again. Hegwood’s received a few donated collections to display and hopes to add more of his own work.
Outside, a crowd gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Neighbors, contractors and members of the community pulled together during the last few months to chip in where they could.
“A guy from Missouri who sent a donation cares,” Drummond said. “A guy from South Dakota, folks from Omaha, they answered the call. Soldiers for life. That’s why we’re here.”
From monetary and material donations, to time and labor, to meals provided by local restaurants, the community responded to the call.
“Our country’s in a dark time,” Gerritsen said. “We have COVID, we have the riots, there’s the election coming up, we have all the fires, unemployment … even through all the adversity this country’s suffering, this was 70 to 80 people coming forward from all across the country to help a fellow veteran.
“It’s not just the community of Hansen. We have people here from Omaha, Lincoln, Iowa, Tampa, Fla. We have people from all over. It’s been Fred Drummond; it’s been Justin Osborne and his financial contributions; it’s been with Grand Island Home Depot — working with those guys has been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
The rebuilding of Hegwood’s shop is only the first step of the project. The second step involves the creation of a veterans memorial park across the street from Hegwood’s shop and home. The final step will be turning his buildings into a military museum.
So although the shop is rebuilt, there’s still work to be done and history to preserve.
Pvt. Ken Hegwood will be featured in The Independent’s veterans edition in November.
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