On the afternoon of October 16th, 2013 I was on assignment to cover a story on a WWII veteran named Ivan DeBaecke who was given the opportunity to relive a memory that he had wanted for a while, to ride in a Ford model-T. Little did I know that the next 2 hours spent with Ivan would turn into an in-depth project where I would spend long sessions with him as he talked about his life, learning about the treacherous times of living during the Dust Bowl as a young boy, entering the military as a teenager, his loves, his fears, and ultimately traveling alone to his hometown of David City, Neb., to explore the prairie lands of a childhood farm home and his final resting place.
One of Ivan’s most fondest memories dates back to 1926 when he was 3-years-old riding in the cab of the vehicle with his family leaving behind his hometown of David City, Neb., for the trek to Bethune, CO. As morning turned to mid afternoon 2 local veterans driving a classic model-T showed up in his driveway and as the horn echoed from the street, the 89-year-old partially deaf man sprung up from his chair as if he were a young child excited beyond belief and said that he recognized that sound. With a large smile stretching across Ivan’s face — almost forgetting to grab his cane to help him walk — he approached his front door and within moments was taken back to 1926. His eyes gazed, while his fingers danced on the front of the vehicle immediately discussing his story and tidbits about the classic car, seconds later Ivan was asked if he would like to go for an afternoon ride followed by a bite to eat. He reached for the passenger door, climbed in, and for a brief moment I saw that 3-year-old boy through the lens of my camera.
As my journey with Ivan lengthened into a special report called When We Were Soldiers, I started seeing him more often and documenting his story alongside a reporter. During these next few months it was apparent to me that this started to feel quite reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie written by Mitch Albom, a wonderful book that I read as a teenager. Ivan had a lot to say about his life, they were lengthy sit down sessions where he told the great story of his life. Each time he looked down for a second silently transitioning into another chapter, I could see that he was traveling back to that very moment before he spoke. We turned through the pages of historic books together, talked about how he found the love of his life on general assignment in Deland, Fla., in 1944, looked at pictures of his family, his wedding, discussed death and learned of his terminal cancer.
One of my fondest memories was one afternoon asking Ivan if he still had his military uniform and he replied that he had. I was nervous to ask him about it and even more nervous to see if he would put it on for me. He agreed and with a smile on his face reached for his cane and proceeded to the bedroom where a fully pressed suit tightly fitted in a clear plastic bag rest on a hanger in the closet. I gave him a moment to change making sure he was doing alright and seconds later appeared Ivan DeBaecke in his suit and hat on his head. Weak in the legs from changing, Ivan had to take a seat at the foot of the bed to rest. Now staring into the mirror on his dresser with a picture of his wife Dorothy on one side, he expressed how long it had been since he wore the suit and how so much has changed. I knew that this was my moment to capture something very special so I did. Moments like these don’t come around often and I saw a man looking at himself in his military uniform, gazing into his past like it was just yesterday. For those few moments it felt like Ivan wasn’t there, it felt like he was entering the military as a young man or dancing alongside the love of his life to their favorite song. Our session ended that day after he changed, and instead of our usual handshake and see you later I gave him a hug and thanked him.
You see my time with Ivan was the absolute greatest opportunity I have ever encountered in my career with another human-being, and documenting his life through my camera changed me forever. It was private and personal, but it was a story that really needed to be told. After learning of his imminent death, Ivan was unsure as to when it would come and I knew that spending as much time with him as I could was important to get his story. He was surely optimistic about the next phase of his life by saying that death is ‘a destiny we’re all going to have to take and accept.’ Prepared for it he was with a plot and headstone ready for him back home in the prairie land of David City, Neb. All that remained was for him to be laid to rest, but Ivan didn’t want his wife Dorothy to go to her grave until he could go with her and held onto her ashes so that they may go as one. I learned so much from Ivan and developed a relationship with him, we were friends. Even after the project published I would visit with him from time to time and now that he is gone I wish I would have visited more. Ivan might be gone now from this life and on his way into the next journey, but my time with him will stay with me until the end of my days. My life is richer because of his, I vow to make my love with my girlfriend and future wife as strong and vibrant as his was and can only hope at the end of my days that I have someone to tell of my great adventure to. Ivan said, ‘life itself is a tapestry of memories, both good times and bad, times we will remember and cherish.’
Ivan DeBaecke’s story is one of every man of his generation. A small town farm boy who grew up during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. He was a war veteran, signing up at the age of 17, six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and served in the United States Navy for 25 years. He served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. A husband for 60 years to his beloved wife Dorothy, a father and a grandfather, Ivan lived a life full of dignity and bravery while overcoming a time of adversity. His story will leave something very special behind for not just myself but for his family, other veterans, future generations and for journalism.
This generation experienced so much turmoil and suffering, overcame mountains of struggle and some remembered every single step of the way. I know that each generation has their own battles, but honestly in this country I don’t know if anyone will ever have to live the way that they lived or if our stories will ever be as telling as theirs were. Honestly even though they went through a lot, the stories are so compelling and they define each of them so well, each of us would be grateful near the end of our lives to be able to sit down and tell such a story.
Remember Ivan, remember each life lost to keep ours alive. Ivan hopes that American society will remember the values his generation cherished. To be responsible for yourself. Be frugal, work hard, keep a level head, use common sense and above all never to give up on what you love. He says ‘continue your patriotism to this country and do the right thing to keep this country going, each succeeding generation leaves their legacy and mark on civilization, so do your best.’
Rest in everlasting peace Ivan James DeBaecke and thank you
December 23, 1923 – July 28, 2015
If you would like to read When We Were Soldiers and more about Ivan’s story written by Senior Reporter Brittany VanHeyningen
Follow this link – When We Were Soldiers
For more photographs from the story – When We Were Soldiers