Nevada County People: ‘One of the best rewards is the new friends you meet’
If you ever wanted to know what volunteering does for you, just ask Fred Hargesheimer of Grass Valley, who did it for years.
“One of the best rewards is the new friends you meet,” said the 91-year-old, who had to quit helping others due to failing eyesight. “It also gives you something worthwhile to do” during retirement, which for him started 30 years ago in Nevada County.
People who know Hargesheimer decided it was time for recognition, and he recently was honored at a well-attended reception at The Center for the Arts in Grass Valley. Hargesheimer was praised for his years of dedication to Hennessy School, Sierra Services For the Blind, the Neighborhood Center of the Arts and the Nevada County Literacy Council, where he taught English to immigrants.
In his mind, Hargesheimer can still see the children at Hennessy School, where he taught them how to garden.
“The kids really loved it,” he said. “They’d really come racing out there when it was their chance.”
The volunteer spirit comes in many different ways to people, but Hargesheimer’s path to aiding others occurred in a rather unique fashion.
During World War II, while flying reconnaissance over New Britain – an island adjacent to New Guinea – Hargesheimer was shot down in his P-38.
“I was down too low. I should have been at 4,000 to 5,000 feet, but I dropped down to get under the weather,” Hargesheimer said. “I was lucky I bailed out, and surviving changed my life.”
For five months Hargesheimer was nursed to health by New Britain natives, who hid him from Japanese searching for him.
“The kids would blow on conch shells every time a patrol was on the way,” allowing him time to flee, he recalled.
When he was healthy enough, Hargesheimer returned to New Guinea. After the war, he went to work for Univac in St. Paul, Minn., where he worked in the computer business.
By the 1960s, Hargesheimer was successful, but he still felt a debt to the people of New Britain for saving his life. He returned to the tiny island and built the children what they desperately needed – a school.
“Education is the most important thing we have,” Hargesheimer said. “Critical thinking is important and so is learning to treat each other with respect.”
The school was built in Ewasse, a village with enough room to build a facility. Hargesheimer helped build another school in Nantambu, the village where he survived his crash.
“We’ve got 500 students K through 8,” Hargesheimer said.
In recent years Hargesheimer got to go back to New Britain and see the plane he was flying that was shot down.
“It was interesting to see where it crashed,” Hargesheimer said. “It was right next to a volcano they named after me.”
His New Britain experiences and volunteering has left Hargesheimer with few regrets. One experience he missed was talking to the Japanese pilot who shot him down.
“I would have liked to have met him to find out the things I did wrong,” Hargesheimer said. “He had Alzheimer’s Disease, and his wife sent me letters saying he was up and down. It was a big disappointment to not meet him.”
Hargesheimer said he has always felt fortunate.
“I’m an ordinary guy with an extraordinary experience,” he said. “I was just lucky.”
Though Hargesheimer can’t volunteer anymore, he urges other to do so.
“There’s all kinds of volunteer opportunities in this community, he said.
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4237.
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