WORLD WAR I: Harley David Semple

(Harley David Semple, circa 1973)

Harley David Semple, known by family as "Dee Dee," was born in Bronson, Iowa, on January 6, 1901. He died on March 16, 1974, at 73, from a condition similar to Lou Gehrig's disease.

Harley was my grandfather; I was seven years old when he and my grandmother took me in permanently and raised me until my high school graduation at 17, so, of course, I'm slightly biased--and why I'm featuring him on this blog.

(Harley, Jennifer, and Olive Semple, circa 1954)

Dee Dee joined the Army when he was just 16 or 17; by the time he was 17 (in 1918), he was serving in France, just before Armistice, which effectively ended World War I. I'm not sure if he served in actual combat because he never talked about his war experiences, and I was too young to ask the right questions. At his passing, I was just 23, by then married and living away from Iowa and in Pennsylvania--besides, from my perspective, World War I was just a piece of history.

I would love to read his letters home to his family, but I'm not sure that they exist anymore. Dee Dee had not yet met my grandmother, so I suspect that most of his letters went to his mother in Bronson.

I can't imagine Dee Dee engaged in combat, but war is funny that way; war yanks ordinary young people, mostly boys, who still have one foot in childhood, from their normal lives and asks them to make life and death decisions. War demands that young men carry arms and kill other people--how can that not inform someone's future life?

I don't know if Dee Dee ever killed anyone in the war--he never said. Even if he had been asked, he probably would have dodged the question. I always had the feeling that he would have rather forgotten that war.

I don't know what Dee Dee did directly after the war; he probably went back to Bronson and tried picking up the thread of his youth. According to a Bronson Town History, Dee Dee, in 1916, was one of the first Boy Scout members in a new troop founded by a Mr. Erkman, a list which noted,

"Harry Oertel, Ray Johnson, Allan Talbott, Harley Semple, Roy Johnson, and Ernest Johnson. When Mr. Erkman left, in 1918, the troop was forgotten..."

--Possibly because of the war?

Imagine: in two years, from Boy Scout to soldier.

But how can one return home and pick up the youthful thread of his life after experiencing a soldier's life in a foreign field?

Harley spent most of his adult life in Sioux City, Iowa; in 1924, he married Katherine Olive ("Mo Mo") Quirk, and they raised four children: Richard, George, Mary Lou (my mother), and Colleen.

And one grandchild: Jennifer.

This is what I remember about Harley Semple: he was a quiet and gentle man who loved to tell stories. I, a troubled child, often sat at his knee to listen to his "Old Sport" stories. Old Sport, a mongrel with a curly tail, thought he was a person and acted accordingly, such as wanting to attend school and sleeping in Jennifer's bed. These corny tales offered an obvious moral (and I knew it even back then), but I didn't care; I still loved them because Dee Dee made them exciting and fun.

Although I don't have any of Harley's war letters, I do have two of his "Old Sport" letters, written just before I moved to Iowa to finish out my childhood, and I would like to share them here:

Thursday [1958]

Dear Angel Kisser:

I haven’t seen you for a long time. Maybe you and Mo can come home soon. I looked all over the neighborhood for Old Sport and can’t find hide nor hair of him. Maybe he doesn’t live here anymore. The other day, I saw a spalpeeny dog around Otoe St. with a round ball on his nose and a curly tail. He was jacking around and following a little girl. He was acting like Old Sport but his feet were dirty and his hair wasn’t combed and he hadn’t washed his teeth so I knew it wasn’t old Sport. I asked the little girl to tell me his name. She said it was Old Ortspay and that he was always following her. She said he followed her to school and wanted to sit in a seat just like Old Sport and pretend to read and the teacher hit him on the bare rudy and run him out. She said she didn’t want an old dirty dog like that in her school. Then he went all over the neighborhood and tried to get in the houses and nobody would let him in. He was cold and wet and hungry but he was such a spalpeen nobody cared. Then he saw a little dirty girl who lives in a dirty house and her name is Efferjay and he followed her home. What do you think? Her mamma let the dirty old thing in out of the cold and fed him some Pard out of a dirty dish and gave the old jerk a dirty pillow with the name “Ortspay” on it to sleep on. And do you know what? The old spalpeen liked it. I was glad the dirty old thing found a place to live. But I’m kind of mad at him for pretending he was “Old Sport.”

Colleen has a dog named Speenart. He is big as a mule but you will like him. And when you come home you can visit them. Saw Timmy the other day–he had a cowboy hat on. It is warmer here now. It has been awful cold. Not much snow. The streets are all dry. See you soon.


Dee Dee


(Harley and Jennifer, circa 1955)

Saturday Nite [1958]

Dear Angel Kisser

I looked all over and I couldn’t find Old Sport anywhere. Maybe he went away to school. I’m getting the house nice and warm and clean for you and Mo so all you have to do is move in. There is some snow out side and is snowing a little now. The weather is nice and fresh. Tell Mo that I finally went to work. I made a door hood to-day and Monday I have to make 10 awnings. Your bed is still here–it didn’t run away. Why don’t you have Mo tell you about the bed that ran away?

Did Mo ever tell you about the lazy cat she had when she was a little girl? When Mo was a little girl she had a pretty cat but it was lazy. The other cats all went out to the field to catch mice and caught themselves a nice mouse but Mo’s cat was just too lazy. She just laid around in the sun and was hungry all the time and she kept getting thinner and thinner and skinny but she wouldn’t go out to catch a mouse. Mo tried every way to her to go out and work for her dinner but she was so lazy she would rather be hungry. Finally she got so skinny and weak she couldn’t even catch a mouse if she tried. So do you know what Mo did? She went out to the field herself early in the morning and worked all day and finally caught enough mice for a nice mouse dinner and brought them in to the lazy old thing and her cat gobbled them up. Just like Old Sport with his Pard. And every day for a long time Mo went out and caught a nice mouse dinner for the lazy old thing and finally the cat got big and strong and fat and healthy and Mo said, “Now look here, cat, you are strong again and if you want to eat from now on you will have to catch your own mice.” After that she went out every day and hunted mice with the rest of the cats. She had learned her lesson. Ask Mo she will tell you all about her lazy cat.

Hurry up and come home and you can meet Colleen’s dog–his name is Speenart.

Love Dee Dee



You bet.

But this is how I prefer to remember this man who was so important in my life. I adored him. We had our issues, of course. The late 1960's intervened, and I rebelled in a rather spectacular manner. The double generation gap drove a wedge between us.

(Jennifer and Harley, circa 1965)

I now understand how the psychedelic 1960's might have bewildered and saddened him; he came of age during a time when mores were set in stone and good folks behaved in certain prescribed ways; the late 1960's turned that truism on its ear when my generation questioned the values of Harley's generation.

Just before he died, we came together again and put our differences behind us--for that, I am grateful.

Journalist Tom Brokaw refers to the World War II generation as "The Greatest Generation," but I believe that that honor should go to the World War I generation.

In terms of technological advancement, Harley and Olive's generation might have well spanned 500 years. This generation was forced to accept tremendous technological adjustments in a relatively short time. In 1901, automobiles were in their infancy, certainly out of reach for Iowa farm families. The Wright brothers were two years away from their first historic flight at Kitty Hawk. Radios were not in every home. TV was just a fantasy.

By the time Harley died, just about everyone had a car, ordinary people were jetting across the country, radio was practically passe, and television was nearly 30 years old. He missed the internet (although Olive, who died in 1987, did know about Apple Computers, PC's, and Bill Gates). All that advancement must have made Harley's head spin, but he seemed to take it all in stride; we owned all the major gadgets of the day. Still, it must have been a major adjustment for a child born into an agrarian society, who grew into a boy who had trudged through the fields of France, and the man who tried to make sense of a troubled world on the edge.

The older I get, the more I marvel at the accomplishments of the World War I generation, who set the groundwork for what we enjoy today. My sitting in front of this computer and blogging about my grandfather so that the world can know him and, perhaps, others like him is possible because his generation accepted and even embraced technological advancement and change.

(Olive and Harley Semple, circa 1972)

Perhaps if some Semple family members read this post, they can fill in the gaps, and I will update this entry.

If you knew Harley David Semple, please post something in the comment section of this post or email me, and I'll post any additional information and memories about our Dee Dee.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful article. Reading it gives me a sense of connection to my past and family history. That part of my mind that holds the memories of Dee Dee were awaken. I too recall Dee Dee as a funny and gentle man. He always made me laugh. I recall the days I too sat on his knee and told me if I could go 5 seconds without laughing, he would give me a nickel. I never made it to five, thus I picked up the name "laughing boy". Being I was born on the day of his father's death, he also referred to me a "little DB" ( his father was David Bruce, and my given named is Donald Bruce). The dog stories are great, he always had a dog in the neighborhood that would come to see him.

One image of Dee Dee I have is the "bingo" days, he would sit in the office counting money, with a cigarette hanging from his lips, saying "I see it but I don't believe it!!" I worked with a few of his old buddies, Jack Mitchell and George Manzer they would tell me stories of my grandfather the bars he owned on the "sharp" end of town, all very funny. I knew he was loved by his friends.

What you have written brings to mind how quickly life goes. I wish I would have paid more attention to his stories and wisdom. The last picture shown is a true capture of Mo and Dee Dee's relationship. He had that "Semple Smirk" and she the Irish Scowl. ( You can almost hear him saying something to piss her off, must be where I get it from)

Thank you Jennifer for saving the memories.

Bugzita said...

Thanks, Laughing Boy. Somehow I knew I'd hear from you.

Light a fire under your sibs and parents.


Does your dad know about any of Dee Dee's war stories?

Your cuz,


Jennifer said...

Received the following from cousin Tim:

"Seeing the pictures of Dee Dee and reading about brought back a flood of memories for me. I knew him so well in those later years because I would spend hours with him building windows and awnings.

"After Sheri and I got married we stayed at his house on the weekends I would come down to work from Yankton, and this was with a little baby to take care of. I always think he liked having little Kimmy around, even though I think there were some nights she kept him awake.

"George and Julie are here and I showed Dad the web site about DeeDee."

Thanks, Tim.

As more family posts (and pictures) arrive, I'll organize all this and write another post.