My grandfather, Abbott Wiley, died today, one hundred years and eight months to the day after he was born.
My grandfather was born December 18, 1916 in a little town in Upstate New York, not far from the place he he would spend the majority of his long life. He was a World War II veteran and winner of the Bronze Star. He married my grandmother after having met her only 30 days before while he was home on leave. He was a local small business man, co-founding with his brother a successful hardware and lumber store that thrives to this day. He was a county legislator and active in local Republican politics, and a trustee for the Hudson Valley Community College.
My grandfather was a hunter and outdoorsman, often taking trips to remote locations like the Canadian wilderness to hunt caribou and elk. He once successfully hunted a Rocky Mountain sheep, becoming one of the few East Coasters to have done so. He was a woodworker, making furniture out of his beloved cherry wood and even fashioning hand carved rifle stocks for sale. His basement woodshop was less that of a hobbyist and more that of a professional woodworker.
He was a gardener—of a garden so large that “gardener” was not as descriptive as “farmer.” Rows of corn, peas, beans… as kids we would spend days picking beans and peas, and shucking corn. There was no way he and my grandmother could possibly eat everything they grew, and so it was given away. He was a forester—on the hill on which their house sat, he planted thousands of trees. (My grandmother has never forgiven him for the fact that those trees would ultimately obstruct her view of the reservoir.)
Despite living and dying within miles of the place he was born, he was well-traveled during his life: he and my grandmother Ruth—now 102 years old—traveled to Europe, China, the Caribbean, and Australia, and New Zealand. The fruits of his labors during his life allowed him and my grandmother to see the world far beyond the boundaries of Rensselaer County.
But by far, the journey that affected him and defined him the most was his service during the Second World War. He entered the service when the United States went to war and moved up through the ranks. Because of his intelligence and ability, he was recommended by a commanding officer for Officer Candidate School. After Artillery Officers School and commissioning as a Second Lieutenant, he was sent to North Africa and from there to Italy, landing south of Naples as part of the 5th Army. He was promoted to captain and made a battery commander in the 347th Field Artillery Battalion of the 91st Infantry Division, with approximately 100 men in his command. He saw action in the 91st Infantry’s “Operation Italia” in Anzio, Civitavecchia, Grosseto, Pisa, Florence, Bologna, Treviso, Udine, and Trieste. Some of his stories from the war are harrowing (nearly being shot by a sniper), others hilarious (accidentally passing a German column on the highway in the middle of the night and only realizing it later). When he was honorably discharged at the end of the war, it was as Major Abbot Wiley, and with a Bronze Star.
For the rest of his life, he would see the world through the lenses of that experience of the war. He believed that every issue could be addressed through the application of some lesson he’d learned in the army, or would draw parallels to an experience during the war. He treated that experience as the source of wisdom that guided him throughout his life. He was even shaped in his personality: he had had a reputation as something of a joker before the war, but afterward, although a wry comment might drop from his lips from time to time, he had taken on a much more serious, stoic demeanor. He was defined by his service in the war and for that reason, it is a picture of him in the service that accompanies this reflection.
There are a lot of reasons to be proud of my grandfather. He worked hard and provided for his family, ensuring among other things, that his three children could have the college education that the war had prevented him from having. He built a business that has long enjoyed a reputation for integrity, fairness, and taking care of the customer. He was a skilled legislator, a wise trustee, and a pillar of the local community.
But as I reflect both on his life and on these days, I cannot help but reflect with pride on his service. He risked everything to contribute to the fight against fascism and to fight for the freedom of all people. As we stood by his bed earlier today, as he lay there sleeping and breathing what would be his last breaths, we thanked him for the many things he’d given us. “Thanks for fighting the fascists,” I added. “We’ll take it from here.”
And that goes for everything else. Thank you, grandpa, for your hard work, for the integrity with which you led your life, for your commitment to public service, for your willingness to travel and explore. Thank you for the love you showed us and the care you gave us, grandpa. We’ll take it from here.
Rest in peace.