How many cards for Korean War veteran’s 91st birthday? More than family dreamed possible
KEWAUNEE – When Ed Engle's granddaughter asked people to send birthday cards for the Korean War veteran's 91st birthday, she and her mother figured they'd get 25, maybe 50 cards.
Wow, did they underestimate the response of the public. By more than a few thousand, in fact.
Following a story about the request that was posted Aug. 16 to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin newspaper websites, including the Kewaunee County Star-News, Engle received 3.194 cards as of Thursday — yes, his daughter, granddaughter and great-grandchildren have kept count — and the cards and packages continue to arrive by the boxful from the U.S. Post Office each day.
The cards came from near and far, from school children and fellow vets, from across the country and overseas.
And that number doesn't include gifts people have sent Engle, from military memorabilia to balloons to food.
The amount of mail arriving over the past week came as a shock to a very thankful Engle and his family.
"Overwhelmed, very, very surprised," said Sheena Philbee, Engle's granddaughter, about not just the card count but also the gifts and letters.
Engle was living in a local nursing home until about three weeks ago, when he was designated for hospice care because of his advancing Alzheimer's. His daughter (Philbee's mother) and her husband bought a house in Kewaunee and moved there with Engle to give him a home and help care for him in his final days.
Engle's 91st birthday, Aug. 23, came shortly after the move, and doctors told the family it likely would be his last. Because he enjoys getting and reading cards, Philbee contacted the Star-News through Facebook about a week before his birthday, asking if the publication could help her ask anyone interested to send him a birthday card, whether they knew him or not.
Cards started arriving soon, with Engle receiving 94 on Monday, Aug. 19, Philbee said.
That didn't prepare the family for the next day, when the post office delivered 1,069 cards and other items, and they've continued arriving at a steady rate since.
Engle said he was happy to get so many cards, and Philbee said he sometimes becomes a little emotional about it.
"When he saw them laying on his bed, he said, 'Oh my god, all for me?'" Philbee said. "Sometimes when we're reading them, he wipes his eyes. I ask him what's going on and he says he's just wiping his eyes (chuckles). I think he's overjoyed all this is happening to him … This brings his spirits back up."
So far, with his family's help, Engle has read about 800 cards, Philbee said, up to about 100 a day. The cards that haven't been read yet wait in boxes around Engle's bed.
"Once we saw the amount he was getting in one day, we're letting him go through as many as he wants," Philbee said.
Philbee said the ages of those sending cards they've read so far ranged from 4 to 98. They include cards from veterans of Korea and other wars, some of them dealing with their own physical limitations; businesses and offices that sent cards as a group; politicians such as 8th District U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, who served with the Marines and did two tours in Iraq, and Kaukauna Mayor Anthony Penterman; and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh men's basketball team.
One 21-year-old sent a 21st birthday card that depicted a row of beers and enclosed a $5 bill with the note, "Have a beer on me."
Most of the cards so far came from Wisconsin, especially the Fox Valley and Sheboygan areas, but Philbee said she and her family have seen return addresses from all across the country and one each from Sweden and Scotland.
They're not just store-bought cards, either. Philbee said many cards were homemade, drawn and colored by hand or computer-printed by well-wishers of all ages. Philbee mentioned one of her nephews in Illinois, whose teacher had her class make a card for Engle.
"I think it's awesome that people would take the time to print off a card," Philbee said.
Plus, a number of people have written letters of thanks and support to Engle or enclosed letters in their cards. Philbee said some of the letters are about the writers' family members who served in Korea or other military conflicts.
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Perhaps as surprising as the sheer number of cards are the unsolicited birthday gifts, which range from lighthearted to poignant.
In recognition of his Army service as well as his birthday, Engle received several plaques; commemorative coins (including one complete collection); a red, white and blue, heart-shaped ornament; and a new "Korea Veteran" cap to join the one already constantly on his head.
One veteran took a patch off his old Army uniform and sent it to Engle, and members of the Kewaunee Artisan Center who piece together Quilts of Valor for area veterans created a quilt for him and brought it over on his birthday. The Appleton Police Department sent him a new blanket as well.
On the lighter side, Engle also received a CD from former "American Idol" contestant Franki Moscato of Oshkosh; a loaf of bread baked for him; and a snack box with peanuts, chocolate, crackers and a little cash inside.
"He was so proud of that," Philbee said of the snack box. "He said, 'It's all mine (laughs).'"
Philbee said the family was planning to reply to everyone who sent cards, but that understandably changed when so many cards arrived. She said the family is more grateful for the responses than she can say.
"Writing a thousand thank-you notes can't show how much we truly appreciate this," she said.
Once read, the cards aren't going to the recycling bin. Philbee said the family will keep them as kind of an heirloom.
"My mom will pass them down to me, I'll pass them down to my kids and so on," she said. "I think it's really neat for them to see how the community responded to this."
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: How many cards for Korean War veteran's 91st birthday? More than family dreamed possible