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McGrath: Many of our real heroes are not famous

Jack Dorigan graduate Chicago Vocational High School served with 89th Infantry Europe. In 1944 they trekked through snow frozen mud

Jack Dorigan, a graduate of Chicago Vocational High School, served with the 89th Infantry in Europe. In 1944, they trekked through snow and frozen mud to defeat Adolf Hitler, liberating the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp along the way. | Supplied photo

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:22AM



Once among the 20 largest high schools in America, Chicago Vocational was bound to have its fair share of famous graduates and celebrity athletes over the past 50 years.

But there is one man, one CVS role model who in my mind stands above the rest.

As a former faculty member there, I had the good fortune to know some of the school’s luminaries.

Such as Keena Turner, a standout defensive end on the varsity football Cavaliers, who went on to stardom as a San Francisco 49er.

Or the late Bernie Mac, whose real name was Bernard McCullough, the class cutup in my freshman English class who went on to Hollywood and TV stardom.

Or Chris Zorich, a phenomenal linebacker on the Cavs, a dominant defensive lineman for Notre Dame and a favorite among fans as a defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears. He was one of the more mature and compassionate students I have known.

But none of these is more deserving of tribute than the subject of this column, Jack Dorigan.

Not even other famous CVS alumni such as Dick Butkus, professional wrestler Moose Cholak, NBA star Juwan Howard nor even the school’s legendary football coach Bernie O’Brien.

For my money, and in commemoration of Veterans Day, Dorigan is a big of a hero as any of these men. Yet he’s not famous, and most readers have never heard his name.

Dorigan was a student at CVS’ airplane mechanics school in 1947 and later was an aviation mechanics instructor there in 1956, launching a lifelong career as a teacher.

Jack and I were among the 200 teachers at the school at a time when it had more than 4,000 students. He was one of the old timers when I was hired at CVS in the 1970s. I’d see his signature on report cards and attendance slips but knew him only vaguely as a white-haired, bespectacled and soft-spoken colleague.

What I didn’t know at the time was that years before he became a schoolteacher, Dorigan spent several years of his youth saving the world.

Not a football star, not an entertainer, First Sgt. Dorigan had trudged with the 89th Infantry across Europe along the Elbe River — through the snow and frozen mud into eastern Germany to defeat Hitler, liberating the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp along the way.

I can still recall seeing Mr. Dorigan clustered with the other shop teachers at CVS faculty meetings, sitting attentively in his pale blue shop coat. Little did I know at the time how he must have considered a city high school bursting at the seams to be relatively quiet and peaceful, compared to the nightly artillery barrages that he and his men endured in 1944.

They had chased the German forces to the eastern end of the country, Jack explained recently by telephone. Aware that the Allied infantrymen were hot on their trail, the Germans also knew exactly where to lob the shells every night. Dorigan never took a direct hit, but he did hurt his shoulder diving in a ditch for cover, an injury that still pains him 70 years later.

But that wasn’t the worst part. You know how cold it can get in Chicago during the winter? Jack asked me. Well, it was a lot colder than that in Europe in 1945.

He still shudders to remember being zipped up in his sleeping bag over stained, crusty snow — watching American bombers pass overhead and wishing he had joined the Air Force so he could stay dry in the cockpit of a plane that would head back home after dropping its payload, with the pilot assured of a hot meal and a warm bed indoors.

But unlike with wars of more recent history, such as Vietnam or Korea or Iraq, there was absolutely no doubt in Jack’s mind that the cold and danger and everything else they endured was worth it.

Nothing substantiates his belief more than their march to Berlin led by Gen. George Patton, when the 89th sidetracked so it could liberate and evacuate a concentration camp in Ohrdruf, Germany.

Previously under the impression that there was not a war horror they had not witnessed, Dorigan said he and his fellow soldiers were suddenly stricken, paralyzed in fact, by the sight of “massive stacks of bodies” — Holocaust victims arranged by the Ohrdruf guards, head to toe, to maximize pallet space.

But you can hear the vindication in his voice as he tells the story of what occurred days later, when the 89th neared the German village of Ebersbrunn. Thousands of German troops streamed from out of the trees like an ant colony, holding white flags above their heads, marching submissively toward the American soldiers.

It was then that Jack knew the war was finally over, that Patton and the 89th Infantry and America had prevailed.

This Veterans Day 2012, the decorated Jack Dorigan is 90 years old and living on Chicago’s Southeast Side. He is blessed, and also cursed, with an excellent memory.

We should use some of ours this day to remember and honor Jack Dorigan and his kind, the many brave and tough soldiers who sacrificed so much to save the world from tyranny and fascism during World War II.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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