Todd DePastino tells a good story. His 2008 book Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front—a biography of the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner known for his World War II cartoons of American soldiers Willie and Joe—is a fascinating read and won the prestigious Sperber Award, given for excellence in biography. But in the last two-and-a-half years DePastino has been concentrating on listening. And what stories he hears—some beautiful and heartbreaking, others gut wrenching and goosebump inducing. Some show the most horrific side of human nature; others prove that goodness survives even in the darkest hours.
DePastino, Magnolia Place, is the executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club (VBC), a nonprofit organization that creates “communities of listening” around veterans and their stories. Through its breakfasts, outreach sessions and bus trips to historic sites (designed to promote reflection, fellowship and storytelling), the club gathers the stories of Pittsburgh-area veterans. While currently focusing on veterans of World War II and Korea, the club hopes to reach veterans of every generation.
“We are losing so many of our aging World War II era veterans,” DePastino says. “Unfortunately, most will pass on before their stories can be preserved. Too often family members take their parents’ stories for granted; they’ve heard the old ‘war stories’ many times, but very few are ever recorded. Once a veteran dies, we’ve lost an important eyewitness to history.”
The VBC traces its roots to the morning Depastino’s book about Mauldin was released. Just a few hours after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with its glowing review of the book, hit doorsteps, DePastino’s phone rang. On the line was Saul Gross, a WWII vet. “You have no idea what those cartoons meant to me,” Gross told DePastino. Although Gross had not yet even read the book, he thanked DePastino and then told him a story. Gross, it turns out, had been captured during the war. Because he was Jewish, that meant being sent to a death camp. But something inexplicable happened: a German soldier yanked off Gross’s dog tags and replaced them with tags of a dead Presbyterian soldier.
That was just the beginning. At every appearance DePastino made to promote his book, veterans eager to share their photos and stories approached him. “They were such personal stories,” he says, “and each one taught me something more.”
In 2008, Dan Cavanaugh invited DePastino to talk at to a veterans breakfast group he had organized. DePastino enjoyed the experience and being in a place where veterans could share their stories. He asked to be invited back. Before long, Cavanaugh and DePastino were filling out the 501c3 applications so the VBC could become a non-profit.
Today, the club has an eight-member board with locations in the South Hills, North Hills, Penn Hills and Moon. The South Hills branch, the club’s oldest and largest, boasts more than 500 members and routinely attracts 100 to 200 veterans, friends and family members to the monthly $12 breakfasts at Salvatore’s Banquets on Curry Road. Attendees range from soldiers who have recently returned from Afghanistan and 99-year-old WWII vets to European civilians whose lived through WWII.
“The magical thing about our group is that [the veterans] are center stage,” DePastino says. “People aren’t talking to them; they are telling the stories.”
DePastino says he has never heard the same story twice, and many times it is the first time the veteran has opened up. “Wives and children approach me all the time, saying ‘I never heard the story before.’” The breakfasts usually have a theme—coming home, writing letters, Pearl Harbor memories. Sometimes a PowerPoint slide show with images and music stimulates the memories. DePastino thinks many of the veterans see the breakfast club as a safe environment where their peers surround them. Even then there are those who are unwilling or unable to share their experiences. But when they do talk, the memories are fresh and detailed. DePastino has plans to turn theses stories into a book.
Earlier this year, the VBC took another step forward when it teamed with the Social Voice Project, StartPoint Media, Andy Marchese Photography and Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum to launch Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh—a new transmedia oral history project that will capture, preserve and share the experiences of Pittsburgh-area veterans of all branches of service and eras, including peace and wartime service.
By using high definition technology, formatting and techniques, the project will produce audiographic, videographic and written interviews that will be accessible through a variety of platforms such as websites (including the project’s own site at veteranvoicesofpittsburgh.com), radio, social media (YouTube), mobile devices and print. “We want these veterans’ stories to be widely accessible, not hidden away in an obscure archive,” says StartPoint Media’s Chris Rolinson, an Army veteran, award-winning videographer and former mtl magazine photographer.
Adds Social Voice Project founder Kevin Farkas: “We want to honor and thank Pittsburgh area veterans for their service by giving them a chance to tell their stories, on their own terms and in their own way.”
Interviews are held monthly at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and by the time you read this, at least a dozen interviews will have been completed, including one with Wendell Freeland, a Tuskegee Airman and one of 162 Army Air Corps officers court martialed in 1945 for defying orders and entering a whites only officers’ club in Freeman Field, Indiana.
“I never dreamed I’d be so captivated by these stories,” DePastino says. “I think in writing the [Bill Mauldin book] I signaled that I understood, and they felt they could talk to me. I can’t believe it when they—the real Willie and Joes—thank me.”
There are no membership dues for the VBC; You do not need to be a veteran to attend. Dates for upcoming breakfasts and information are available at 412-623-9029 or www.veteransbreakfastclub.com