Sugar Ray Leonard was the world champion boxer in the welterweight/light middleweight class. I’m not a big fan of the “sweet science” but I liked Sugar Ray. He was a good looking young guy who seemed nice everywhere I saw him.
He did not scowl or talk smack. Not that I ever saw. He was in my favorite television commercial of all time. He was training or doing something in a ring and three little guys were walking past and two of them looked up with gaping jaws, clearly star struck, and shouted
“Look… it’s the champ”.
The third little guy just dismissed all of that saying
“Nah! That’s just my dad”.
I just love that commercial. People are more than one thing.
I was privileged to be invited to a testimonial honoring Henry Mannella, PA State Commander of the VFW. This was a two-day event held in the Doubletree Hilton hotel in Monroeville Mall. I had to leave my beloved forest and venture into traffic hell. My wife got sick so to make matters even worse, I had to go alone. For any other event, I would have chosen to eat the hotel fee and stay home. For this event, that was out of the question.
I was never in the service. My father was a marine. One of my brothers left the army as major. An army ranger. My other brother was in the air force. One of my uncles was also in the air force. So is my grandson, currently stationed in Japan. My wife’s youngest brother was in the navy. Her grandfather was also in the navy. I am proud of all of them. None of that says anything of me. Their glory is theirs alone. I can take pride but no credit. I mention it only to honor them.
Henry did two tours in Iraq. This was not a golf outing. There were live explosives and people died. His service qualified him for membership in the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars). My dad, who served in Korea, was also a member. The VFW is an exclusive group. You cannot just join. You have to qualify, and people who do are those who have actually ‘cashed the check’. There are many who ‘write the check’. That is a phrase I picked up from my army ranger brother referring to people who talk tough but don’t have the mettle to back talk up with action.
I sat in two separate evenings of meals and testimony to the bonds of people in this exclusive group of soldiers. Over the course of those evenings I interacted with members of Henry’s family, friends, and fellow veterans. I listened to the appreciation they expressed for Henry’s leadership and mentorship for a literal horde of people whose lives had been touched… are currently being touched by Henry. I spent time with Henry’s daughter Marie and wife Deanne on the first night because I was privileged to sit at their table.
The second night, Henry’s son Antonio was there in his ROTC uniform participating in the event to honor his father. Henry and his wife were on the dais with a large group of VFW members, most of whom had a time at the microphone to express appreciation for Henry’s achievements; His contributions to the group. To a person, it was admiration and appreciation for the difference he makes.
The VFW is a military-based organization. Obviously, it is made up of veterans. There is also a military type ranking. It is quite beyond me and I got lost in a flurry of commander titles. The only thing I was clear on was that, in Pennsylvania for the term ending June 2023, Henry Mannella is the State Commander.
I got quite a peek at the man behind the curtain through the lens of people who have worked with Henry for a lot of years. Who helped him and who were helped by him. I sat for two evenings in the midst of people who served in the military and, afterward, served in the VFW alongside, and under, Henry as he percolated through and up the ranks of the VFW. I got a view of Henry I did not have before. You see people differently when you get an opportunity to see how other people see them.
I was given a bound book full of accolades from VFW officials across the state for Henry, appreciating and looking forward to working with him during his term. He was presented with a letter from Governor Wolf expressing appreciation for his accomplishments.
VFW is a group. On a mission with a common bond. Members take the bond seriously. If you are not IN a group like this, you will have a different perspective of the people in your lives who are. You will not have directly shared the bits that made the moments that formed the bonds. The same people you know. Just new lights and angles illuminating them. And I really saw Henry from a new angle. He is the same guy. There is just more to him than I realized. A large group of people see other things of him.
When he spoke, Henry acknowledged his family. He has been married to Deanne for 28 years. Their oldest daughter, Marie, glowed at the event. I got to sit at her table both evenings and if pride were sun, I’d have needed SPF 50 for protection. Antonio is in high school and contributed the second night in the color guard of the ROTC. I had met Antonio at other events as a kid. At this event, in his uniform and participation, he was a man doing his father proud. And his pride radiated.
As I sat over two nights feasting and celebrating Henry, I found myself coming back frequently to a familiar thought about the people celebrating Henry.
“Nah! He’s just my little sister’s husband!”
As much as you might know or think you know about a person, there is always more. I’m proud of Henry for what he has accomplished and for the esteem in which people hold him for his service. It is a side I’m happy I got to see and have some small share in celebrating. I personally am most proud, most appreciative, though, of the fact that he has been married to my little sister for 28 years. People are more than one thing. Often much more than we know.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining the VFW. Part One was originally published in the Forest Press.