DENHAM SPRINGS —With tears in her eyes, Geraldine Schexnayder accepted a framed photograph of her father and his last letter home — treasures she never knew existed.
“For 30 years, I kept waiting for him to come home,” Schexnayder said of her father, Ivory Disotell, a U.S. Army soldier who died in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. Schexnayder was 6 years old when her father left for the war.
On Friday, a great-great-cousin, Hailey Enamorado, a sixth-grader at Denham Springs Junior High School, presented those treasures to Schexnayder during the school’s Veterans Day celebration.
“It was so wonderful for a child that didn’t even know him to do this,” Schexnayder said.
The story unfolded rather quickly after Hailey decided to participate in the school’s annual celebration of veterans by entering the essay contest that Principal Bryan Wax said is held to make students aware of the sacrifices veterans have made for them.
“The essay is part of our push for better writing,” Wax said. “This story makes (the essay) even more impressive.”
Hailey said she wasn’t going to write an essay but then remembered the story her mother, Crystal Rende, told her about a picture she had of her great-great-uncle who fought in WWII.
Hailey and her mom then removed the letter from the back of the picture, where it had remained years after having been passed down to Rende when her grandmother died.
“It was a Wednesday evening, Oct. 4, 1944, when Private Ivory Disotell, of the 346th Infantry Regiment, 87th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in World War II, wrote home, ‘Well Dad, I have done everything I can to get home to all of you but it seems like I won’t succeed,’ ” Hailey read to more than 70 veterans and a crowd in the DSJH gym.
“He closed his letter with quoting a Bible verse and encouraging his family, ‘Be of good courage, He will return to those who have hope in the Lord,’ ” Hailey said.
Disotell died serving his country on Jan. 3, 1945, almost three months from the day he wrote his last letter home, she said.
“His letter, written in pencil, and now yellow and fragile, was preserved behind the picture of that soldier in his military uniform that was passed down to our family and was recently discovered,” she continued.
But writing the essay wasn’t enough for the sixth-grader, who enlisted help from her grandmother to locate Disotell’s closest living relatives. When she finally spoke to Schexnayder, she told her about the essay contest and invited her to the program.
She took notes of their conversation and was amazed at the things Schexnayder still remembered.
“The last thing I remember is us standing on the concrete street,” Schexnayder told Hailey. “The bus of soldiers pulled up. The noise was so loud. But, all I saw was my daddy. He was hugging momma. Tears rolling down his face, his eyes so blue, it looked like God had pulled a piece of the sky down and put it in his eyes. … When he crouched down to hug my little body, I was only 6 when he left, you know, his cheek was wet with tears. I looked up and saw him smile. He smiled for me. I looked into his eyes for the last time that day. I watched as he got on the bus. I watched until he got out of sight. For as young as I was, I wondered that day if my daddy would ever be seen again. …
“After daddy left for the war, I waited every day at (the window of her home) with mommy and my brother,” Schexnayder told Hailey. “We waited. And one day, it was just me waiting. Mommy had died and my brother was lost to cancer. It was real bad. And, for 32 years, I waited. Until finally I decided he wasn’t coming back.”
Schexnayder, whose father was declared missing in action, finally received a photo of her father’s headstone marking the grave where he is buried overseas, she said.
In addition to Schexnayder, who lives in Krotz Springs, Disotell’s youngest brother, John Disotell, attended the Veterans Day program. With tears in his eyes and a tissue in his hand, John Disotell talked about the day his family received the telegraph notifying them that Ivory Disotell was missing in action.
“It’s just a part of life,” John Disotell said, crying. “Life hands out some wicked blows sometimes.”
Rende said the story, which began with a simple essay about a family member, morphed into a beautiful story about a daughter and a father.
Hailey said reading the old letter and talking with her great-great-uncle’s daughter stirred up mixed emotions. “I felt like I brought joy, and then I feel like I brought back memories, but sometimes, those aren’t always bad things.”
Her journey in reconstructing the story, she said, has changed her view about Veterans Day.
“Veterans Day for me wasn’t a big deal,” Hailey admitted. “Now, it’s an honor.”