I was sitting in my car Monday morning, scrolling through work emails, when I saw LeRoy Luitjens’ name appear in the subject line of a message.
LeRoy — the World War II veteran and one of the last two members of the Glen’s Coffee Clique Last Man Club at Luverne — died Sunday. He was 93.
His death came just 15 days after standing with Helmer “Haaky” Haakenson at the Rock County Veterans Day Banquet and toasting glasses of bourbon as The Last Men in a club that once numbered 24 World War II veterans.
It was just days before the special ceremony that I met with LeRoy and Haaky for an interview. LeRoy had suggested we meet at the senior dining site in Luverne — the place where he and Haaky met for lunch on a nearly daily basis (although on this particular day, Haaky was going to the Veterans Home for lunch instead — they were serving pheasant.)
When I arrived, they were seated at a table. I recognized Haaky immediately, having interviewed him back in 2010, not long before Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight took its inaugural flight to Washington, D.C.
LeRoy was on that journey as well.
And so, we reminisced about Honor Flight — the experience of a lifetime for each of us — and we talked about the war.
LeRoy grew up on a farm between Reading and Wilmont and was drafted in 1944 — two years after he graduated from Worthington High School. He left as a young man vowing to serve his country, and returned with the love of his life — Margarete — the woman he met while stationed in Austria.
The couple lived in Worthington for a while before moving to Luverne in 1961. LeRoy, who made a career working in construction, told me he helped build the Daily Globe.
According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, La., an estimated 558,000 World War II veterans were still living in 2017 of the approximately 16 million Americans who served their country. We are losing them at a pace of 362 per day.
I am thankful LeRoy and Haaky decided to share in that toast on Nov. 11, and I am grateful to them and all of the World War II veterans who fought for our freedom.