It was 120 years ago this week that George Wigert was born in Axtell, a speck of a town in rural Nebraska. Wigert would grow up to attend military school, fight in World War I, then return home to start a family.
It was just three years ago that Wigert's grandson, author and publicist Pat O'Neill, came across hundreds of letters Wigert exchanged with his mother while preparing for and fighting in what was called "the war to end all wars."
O'Neill was so struck by his grandfather's letters he decided to compile them into a book. "Dearest Mother: Letters from a Lonesome Sammy 1915-1919" tells the story of the Great War through one man's experience and, for the O'Neill family, adds context and personality to the man who eventually settled in Kansas City.
The book's title echos the greeting Wigert reserved for his mom, and used throughout his letters home. Those letters serve as the focus of the book, filled with cartoons, photos and facsimiles of WWI-era letterhead and news clippings.
"[I] took all the girlfriend stuff out, mostly because he was trying to juggle three girls," says O'Neill.
"You think of your grandfather or people like that, you have an image of them, and the image is like; my grandfather wore a white shirt and a bow tie and smoked a Salem cigarette everyday," O'Neill says. "I didn't really know him very well."
O'Neill spoke about his grandfather with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date.
"I transcribed like 200-some letters — 78,000 words I think it was — and suddenly this vision of a young guy who, at the outset of World War I, is all full of piss and vinegar, ready to go to France," O'Neill says. "He wants to be an officer and he wants the glory of war, until he gets there."
When he did get to Europe, Wigert grasped firsthand the monstrosities all warriors face.
"You know, a country can get all wrapped up in patriotism and taking umbrage at another country and just all of a sudden this want to go to war swells," O'Neill says. "Then the reality of it hits ... there's a harsh and huge and horrible reality on the other end of a declaration of war."
Despite that recognition, Wigert took care to shield his mother from the despair and death he encountered daily. Examples of this tendency aren't hard to find. Wigert minimizes dangers posed by railroad bombs, U-boats patrolling the Atlantic, the sheer amount of ammunition flying at any given moment, even what would happen when he returned home.
"I've had some close ones," Wigert wrote to his mother in 1918, "but fifteen feet when a shell don't explode is as good as a mile."
"Mothers lived in fear everyday, especially because there was this long gap in communications," O'Neill says. "It might be months before you realized your son was killed ... so I think they hung on pins and needles, of course they did."
So how would his grandfather feel about such personal letters being published for the world to see?
"I don't know," O'Neill says. "He was a pretty quiet guy, but he had a sense of humor and you'll see that through these letters."
One thing is for sure. The O'Neill family appreciates having a deeper understanding of who George Wigert was.
"He was a youth once, and he was a middle-aged guy in the Depression fighting off [the] loss of a job, and then ultimately coming to Kansas City and being a building inspector," says O'Neill.
"It's fascinating to learn who that man really was," he says, "The family is glad that this all came out and they think of him differently now."
Listen to Pat O'Neill's entire conversation with Steve Kraske here.