Donald F. Collins, 90, is well-known in Caribou and throughout Maine for his leadership in business and state government, but seldom is he recognized for his military service.
The fourth generation of his family to own S. W. Collins Co. in Caribou and a former representative and senator in the Maine Legislature, Collins’ service in the U.S. Army during World War II is a less familiar story.
So he was surprised when, just a year ago, he received an unexpected gift in honor of his service and became one of thousands of Maine veterans to own a walking stick from woodcarver George Gunning of Windsor.
“This came out of the blue,” Collins’ wife, Pat, wrote me in an email the day Phil Bosse, who runs U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ Caribou office, appeared at the senator’s parents’ home with an “amazing eagle-topped cane.”
“How they decided on Don I do not know, but I suspect Susan’s mentioning her father’s service triggered Mr. Gunning to call Phil for details on Don’s service,” Pat Collins said.
She said the cane had “Don’s name on it as well as little emblems for [World War II], the Army and the Purple Heart.”
As a member of the 87th Infantry in Europe, Donald Collins served overseas from 1944 to 1946 and earned two Purple Hearts for injuries received in the Battle of the Bulge against the Germans in Belgium in December 1944.
His medals include a Combat Infantryman Badge, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. He had just turned 19 when he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, which British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill called “the greatest American battle of the war … an ever-famous American victory.”
He was discharged as a sergeant in January 1946 and returned to study at the University of Maine on the G.I. Bill where he met his wife.
A call to Gunning confirmed Pat Collins’ suspicion. Gunning met Sen. Susan Collins when she was a speaker for the annual convention of the Department of Maine Disabled American Veterans in Bangor last spring. She mentioned her father was a veteran, and Gunning gave her his card.
Bosse followed up for the senator, forwarding details of Donald Collins’ service to Gunning. The cane arrived in Caribou promptly, with no specific instructions on how to present it. Gunning simply asked that Bosse give it to Collins with words of gratitude.
Bosse said Collins was very honored and accepted the cane in his humble way, saying, “I just did what I was supposed to do.”
Gunning is himself a humble man, Bosse said, directing attention to the service of the veterans and away from the makers of the canes.
“We do it because we enjoy it,” Gunning told me on the phone, describing his work with his wife, Donna, and friend Burt Truman of Hallowell. The team has made more than 2,966 canes in the last nine years at a workstation in the Gunning kitchen, making up to 20 in a day.
“The focus is on the veterans,” he said, adding they do not seek recognition. Nonetheless, U.S. Sen. Angus King had a tribute to their volunteer effort entered into the Congressional Record March 12, 2015.
Gunning, 84, and Truman, in his late 70s, are both veterans themselves. Gunning’s wife of 59 years personalizes each cane, researching on the Internet for appropriate details concerning the individuals, such as names of ships or units the veterans were affiliated with or military honors they earned.
Every cane is decorated with a flag and the veteran’s name and branch of service, then personalized with emblems, such as the Purple Heart.
The eagle head is cast with pecan shells and resin, and the shaft is made of ash because it is a strong and lightweight wood.
“The generosity of the Maine Woodcarvers’ Association has helped us an awful lot,” Gunning said, explaining the group provides hardwood adapters to fit the eagle head onto the shaft.
There is no charge for the canes, which cost $22.50 each to make, but Gunning accepts voluntary donations.
“Veterans wait no more than two weeks” for their canes, Gunning said, adding most recipients request them themselves. Gunning verifies their service and honors earned after the veteran describes his war experience.
“We’ve heard some pitiful stories,” he said. The first cane was awarded to a World War II veteran who was one of three survivors of a “European death march” of 1,200-1,300 British and U.S. prisoners held by the Germans.
Gunning said he makes a special effort to honor World War II veterans.
“They’re at the top of the list,” he said, adding that he is working on a cane for a man who will be 100 years old this year. Most recipients served in Vietnam and some in Korea.
“Eighty percent tear up when they see it,” he said of the veterans who come to the Gunning home for their canes. Family members who come with them also often hear stories about their loved one’s service that they never heard before as the veterans open up.
One of the most memorable projects the Gunnings recall working on was the mounted cane and plaque they presented posthumously to the family of Master Sgt. Gary Gordon of Lincoln who was killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993 while attempting to rescue the crew of a downed Black Hawk helicopter.
Reflecting on the effects of combat service, Gunning said, “You go from life through a veil into a place where you exist for a different purpose. The hard part is coming back through the veil where people are civil to each other.
“We weren’t put on this earth to kill each other,” he said.
Gunning’s commemorative canes are a way of saying thank you, even to veterans who were dishonorably discharged.
“If a person volunteered, we do not judge,” he said. “The only qualification is to be a veteran. A general or a private gets exactly the same cane.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.