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The secret to long life: “Just say, yes dear”

2015 honoree went from WW2 battlefields to Solon State Bank
Don Erusha (right) accepts his Senior of the Year Award from Sandy Hanson at a Solon City Council meeting May 6. (photo by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– Don Erusha has been a part of the Solon community since taking on duties at the Solon State Bank in 1963, retiring as Executive Vice President in 2000, and has had a hand in several key endeavors since. For his contributions to Solon, Erusha was named one of two 2015 Seniors of the Year.
The 92-year old acknowledged his busy past. “I was (busy), but not anymore. I’m not doing very much around here anymore,” he said.
Erusha continues as a member of the Solon Area Community Foundation (SACF), an organization he helped start.
“It was kind of my idea, initially,” he said. “Of course, there have been a lot of helpers keeping it going.”
The foundation offers scholarships and provides financing for various projects throughout the community. Another big foundation project Erusha is eagerly anticipating is the Freedom Rock in Solon.
Ray Sorenson II, an artist in Greenfield, painted a large boulder near Greenfield as a tribute to America’s veterans. Sorensen changes the scene on the rock every year and embarked on a project to place smaller rocks in all 99 counties.
Solon has been booked, according to Sorensen’s website, and will eventually see him on site and painting.
“I thought it’d be done by now,” Erusha said, “but apparently there’s some hitches in getting it (the rock, located near Solon) moved. Hopefully we’ll get one someday in Solon.”
Other foundation projects of note, he said, included the flagpole in Mushroom Park, financial involvement in the illuminated Solon signs on the north and south sides of town along Highway 1 and the trail from Lake Macbride to the Solon Nature and Recreation Area.
“Probably one of the best-kept secrets in Solon,” Erusha said, “is that we have received some gifts, and we have about $500,000 invested, which we have available for projects as they come along.”
Erusha was among the founders of the Solon Nursing Care Center in 1970 and sat on the board of directors for the nursing home for nearly 20 years.
“That has been very successful. There has been a lot of very good people involved in that,” he said.
He remembered going to a grand opening for a facility in Traer and wondering why they didn’t have a similar place in Solon.
“We got this guy from Sioux City to come down and meet with 15-20 people, in the basement of the old bank building. That was how we got started. He showed us what to do and brought in a contractor. He pointed us in the right direction,” Erusha elaborated. He noted with pride that the nursing home is still completely independent, and praised the expertise of its administrators for making the facility a success.
Expounding on the organization’s accomplishments, Erusha elaborated on the city’s growth and the addition of Mercy Family Medicine of Solon, located at 510 W. Main St.
“One of our early projects was getting a doctor in town. We built that building and Dr. VanHouweling came to work here,” he said.
Erusha also was among the first to join the Solon Optimists Club in the 1960s, serving as one of the organization’s early presidents.
He recalled that the Optimists banded together and replaced the dilapidated roof on the historic Stone Academy.
“We barely got it finished and a tornado came along and tore the roof off. Dumped it in the yard,” he said.
Eventually the school was roofed again and stands today as an example of Iowa’s one-room school houses.
Like many Solonites, Erusha was an active participant in the annual Beef Days celebration. He recounted how the Solon tradition came to be: “I don’t know who suggested it (at an Optimists meeting) that we reincarnate some kind of a fall festival, a Fourth of July celebration…something that was active in Solon back in the 1940s and ‘50s.”
While his involvement ended some years back, he reminisced about a Beef Days tradition, the car raffle, which lives on today.
“One of the things we did start was selling tickets on a Cadillac car,” Erusha said. At that time, a brand new Cadillac could be had for $6,000 to $7,000. “We sold those tickets for $100 and gave away nine $100 prizes, so nine people got their money back and the 10th got the car.”
A native of Walford, Erusha– with his wife of 65 years, Rita– traveled around the state for his job as a bank examiner before settling in Solon in 1965.
During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army 84th Infantry Division, known as “The Railsplitters” from their insignia, an axe splitting a rail, and a nod to President Abraham Lincoln. The division was sent to England in the fall of 1944 and entered France on Nov. 1 of that year, 158 days after the D-Day landings. The division was trucked across France into the Netherlands, in preparation for an offensive drive into Germany, but was diverted to Belgium to counter the German offensive known as “The Battle of the Bulge.”
“That started around the 15th of December, and we were up in northern Germany. We thought we were going back to have a break. We’d got into combat around the middle of November, so thought we going to get showers, a break,” Erusha said. “Instead we wound up where people were speaking Belgian. Marche was the name of the town as far as the Germans got. I went to Midnight Mass at the church there and the Germans hit us the next day.”
By March 1945, the 84th had moved into Germany and captured the city of Hannover on April 10. Their advance stopped at the Elbe River where U.S. forces met the Russians.
“They were a mile from us and we were forbidden to go and meet them,” he recalled. “I never saw the Russians. I was always law-abiding, so I didn’t go over and see the Russians. They were there, so we turned around and came back.”
What he didn’t mention, however, was that the division found and liberated two concentration camps on their way to the Elbe. Their humanitarian efforts upon discovering the camps led to recognition as a “liberating unit” by the U.S. Army Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Museum.
Erusha described the 10-day voyage back to the United States aboard the battleship USS Washington, an Iowa-class ship.
“They took off 900 of the crew and put us on there; I was sick, just as sick going back as I was going over,” Erusha said, and described being seasick. “You’re afraid you’re going to die, and then you’re afraid you’re not.”
They arrived in the port of New York City on Christmas Eve morning 1945, and saw the Statue of Liberty through the fog.
When asked if he’d ever considered writing down some of his stories from the war, to preserve the history, he laughed. “Nobody would ever believe it. They’d say I made it up and there’s nobody here to call it wrong,” he said.
Erusha has been a member of the American Legion since 1945 and has had his name placed on the Johnson County Veterans’ Trail.
In 1980, Don and Rita took a battlefield tour of Europe where he retraced some of his steps from the war and took a contemporary photograph, in the same spot as one he took in 1945.
Now in retirement, Erusha stays busy in other ways.
“It takes a long time to get anything done, you have to think about it a little bit, then you have to do it, and then you have to think, ‘did I do it right?’”
He also is a prolific reader and is active on the Internet.
The Erushas have four grown children: Kathryn, Karlene, Neil and Michael; 11 grandchildren; and three-and-a-half great-grandchildren.
“One’s in the basket yet,” Erusha said. “Due in November.”
The secret to longevity, he said is to, “say yes,” as-in “Yes, Dear.”
Rita simply agreed.