At 102, Bernard Russell Queneau was the oldest man to share stories about his military service at meetings last year of the Veterans Breakfast Club.
Mr. Queneau, who died on Pearl Harbor Day last year, was a World War II U.S. Navy veteran from Mt. Lebanon.
“No hearing aids, no walker and sharp as a tack,” Todd DePastino said of Mr. Queneau. As executive director of the nonprofit club, he said he relishes the chance to hear and help preserve the experiences of service personnel from all of the nation’s wars.
The Veterans Breakfast Club is expecting a full house of 250 Thursday for its first major fundraising event at the Heinz History Center. “Their Stories, Our History” will be a celebration of local veterans, Christine Crompton, president of the club’s board of directors, said.
“The main reason to celebrate is our agreement with the Heinz History Center to house our permanent collection of interviews with veterans,” she said.
The Veterans Breakfast Club has filmed, edited and posted 350 conversations with ex-service members, Mr. DePastino said. Its archives also include several hundred audio-only interviews collected at club events.
The Veterans Breakfast Club organizes about 40 meetings annually at locations around the region. Each event draws about 100 participants. The club has no dues. Those attending pay for their meals, served at 8:30 a.m., or they can come just for the storytelling and listening at 9 a.m.
“I’ll wade into the crowd with a microphone and coax the vets to talk about their experiences,” Mr. DePastino said.
Joe Zimbicki, an Army veteran from Bridgeville, spoke at a recent breakfast. Mr. Zimbicki, 97, talked about growing up in the Great Depression, getting drafted and earning two Purple Hearts. Wading ashore on Utah Beach on D-Day in 1944, he was wounded by German machine-gun fire. He was hit on another occasion by shrapnel from an exploding shell.
Between 10 and 15 people usually speak during the 90-minute sessions.
The breakfast meetings began informally in 2008 with 30 World War II veterans. “Every meeting we see some new people and hear some new stories,” Mr. DePastino said. “We haven’t run out of material yet.”
The Veterans Breakfast Club organized itself in 2011 as a nonprofit organization. Last year it forged a partnership with the Heinz History Center, which will be the repository for its collection of veterans’ interviews. Those oral histories already are being used as part of the history center’s new World War II exhibit, “We Can Do It!”
Mr. DePastino, who earned a doctorate in history from Yale University, is an adjunct faculty member at Penn State University’s Beaver campus. He is the author or editor of several books, including a biography of cartoonist Bill Mauldin published in 2008.
About that time, breakfast club co-founder Dan Cavanaugh was making plans for the firstget-togethers where veterans could talk about their experiences. Mr. Cavanaugh, who had volunteered as a bus captain accompanying veterans on trips to the WW II memorial in Washington, D.C., found that the ex-service members were eager to have an opportunity to tell their stories.
About 400,000 women served in the U.S. armed forces during WW II and the Veterans Breakfast Club has drawn some female veterans to share their experiences.
Ms. Crompton was encouraged to attend an event by her father, John Bozek, a WW II veteran from Mt. Lebanon. “I loved hearing the stories and seeing the camaraderie,” she said.
Sometimes when grown children come with a veteran parent, they get to see a different side of their mom or dad. “Often after the event, someone will come up to Todd and say, ‘I never heard that story before,’ ” Ms. Crompton said. “Some are funny, some are sad — but they all have a story to tell.”
For more information about the Veterans Breakfast Club and a list of upcoming meetings: veteransbreakfastclub.org, which has a link to information on the “Their Stories, Our History” fundraiser; 412-623-9029; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oral histories and interviews can be viewed at veteranvoicesofpittsburgh.com.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 724-772-0184.