Ernst Wood died at the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol, Rhode Island on Friday, May 27, 2011. He was 92 years old. He had struggled for a very long time with advancing dementia, and although his family misses him terribly, they are happy for him that he has been relieved of the burden of confusion, anxiety and disorientation of that disease. He lived a very full and rich life at the center of an active and loving family, traveling the world and enjoying many of the simple pleasures that he committed himself to after World War II.
When reflecting on surviving the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Wood told his wife, Barbara Morris Wood, that after that experience he wanted only to have a home and a family and enjoy a quiet, peaceful life. That is precisely what he did for their 62 years together.
He led a remarkable life. Born in 1918, the son of a New Bedford Quaker father and an aristocratic German mother, his life would cause him to span the Atlantic several times.
His father, Professor Henry Wood, was a 9th generation New Bedford Quaker who attended Moses Brown School during the Civil War. During Professor Wood’s graduate studies in Germany in the late nineteenth century he met and married Mr. Wood’s mother. Ernst Frederick Wood, their third son, was born when his father was 69 years old and his mother was 46 years old. Based on letters preserved from that period, his arrival was quite a surprise to his parents.
Mr. Wood first crossed the Atlantic from his birthplace in Baltimore, Maryland to Berlin, Germany when his parents retired to Germany when he was three years old. By the time he was five his father, an American Goethe scholar who founded the German language department at Johns Hopkins, had died. At that young age he was sent to a boarding school on the Baltic Sea where he had to break the ice on top of his water bucket to wash up on winter mornings. As Hitler came to power in Germany, Mr. Wood’s beloved headmaster was forced out of his boarding school because his grandmother was Jewish. Although only in his teens, Mr. Wood joined a small group of schoolboys who followed their purged teacher to Stuttgart to found a new school, in resistance to the regime. As it became clear to Mr. Wood that Hitler's power would not be stopped, he convinced his mother to leave Germany in 1939 and they returned to the United States.
He returned to Europe as an infantry Forward Operating Intelligence Scout in the U.S. Army in 1944. As he referred to it, he "walked across Europe," starting in France, and reaching the former Czechoslovakia by the end of the war. Mr. Wood received the European-African-Middle Eastern (EAME) Campaign Medal with three stars, Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe, as well as a Good Conduct medal, a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and a Distinguished Unit Badge. He never spoke about his wartime experiences with bravado. Instead he focused on two things: the fellowship he felt with the men with whom he served, and his pride in being able to use his bilingual and bicultural understanding to encourage many German troops encountered in the field to surrender at the end of the war, thus saving both American and German lives.
In 1946, like many returning GI’s, Mr. Wood found himself looking for a post-war civilian job. He applied to Pan American Airways and was interviewed by Barbara Morris. Barbara not only hired him to work for Pan Am, the two were married on March 21, 1949. Because both worked for an international airline, their friends were scattered around the globe. Their best man was stationed by Pan Am in Damascus, Syria, so they were married in Damascus and honeymooned by traveling around the Middle East. On March 29, 1949, while in Syria, the couple found themselves at the center of the first coup d’etat in Syrian history. They awakened on that morning to the sight of tanks parked in the city square with turret guns pointed at their hotel. It was a momentous launch to their honeymoon and their life together.
After briefly working for Pan American at Laguardia Airport in New York, Mr. Wood was again tapped to use his linguistic and cultural knowledge of Europe. He returned to Germany with his wife to spend several exciting years helping Pan Am establish civilian aviation in post-war Europe, supporting the Berlin airlift, and starting a family.
In the 1950s he returned to the United States for the last time, to make his home with his family in New York, where he worked for Pan Am until his retirement in 1980. Like so many others, he forged a new life in a split-level suburban development on Long Island. He rode the Long Island Railroad, planted a garden, nurtured the dozens of beautiful beech trees that he had saved from the builder’s chainsaw, built fences, patios, sheds and swing sets, fixed his children’s bicycles, and took up woodworking and clock repair.
He also became a member of the German Order of St. John in the United States, known as the Johanniter Orden, a charitable organization whose mission is to care for the sick and the poor. He rose to become the official delegate of that organization for the United States and served in that capacity for many years.
Thanks to the airline's travel benefits, he and his wife traveled with their entire brood of five children to every corner of the world. For decades he could be seen during every school vacation, hurrying through airports carrying five or six heavy suitcases like a Sherpa, with children trailing along behind. He took quiet pleasure in coming to know and share his life with his children's partners, his seven wonderful grandchildren and their partners, as well as the three adorable great-grandchildren who came into his life as the years passed.
In his final months he received exceptionally kind and professional care at the R.I. Veterans' Home. The staff there made sure that his last days were filled with extraordinary compassion, caring and dignity. His family is deeply grateful to all of the Veteran's Home staff for all that they did to keep him safe and make him comfortable.
The sum of a long life, well lived, is hard to communicate. Ernst Wood is remembered as a true gentleman, honest to a fault, classically educated, fluent in at least four languages and comfortable with both Latin and Greek. His tolerance, respect and open embrace of people of all backgrounds and circumstances were truly exceptional. Despite his relatively rarified upbringing, he wanted nothing but to be a common man, enjoying life’s most basic pleasures. At the end of his life he sometimes deployed, in gratitude to a caregiver, and without affectation, a simple gesture of affection and respect that had been hardwired in his youth. When he could no longer care for himself in basic ways, if someone was bestowing a kindness, he would sometimes express his gratitude by softly brushing the back of their hand with a kiss.
Ernst Wood was a gentle, humble man. His family misses him.
A celebration of Mr. Wood’s life will be held on June 19th, 2011 at 2pm at Brown University’s Manning Chapel (directions at http://tinyurl.com/6gzbcfg). Donations in his memory can be made to the R.I. Veterans Home, 480 Metacom Avenue, Bristol, RI 02809.