VINTON – John Gualtier stood on the 50 yard line at Kinnick Stadium Saturday night, tears streaming down his face as 70,000 cheered for him.
The University of Iowa Hawkeyes honored Gualtier at their football game Saturday with Penn State University’s Military Hero of the Game for his military service and half a century of assisting veterans.
A Ohio farm boy until settling in Vinton after the war, he’d seen the horrors of combat and of liberating a Nazi concentration camp; fought the nightmares of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and won his battle with the bottle and thoughts of suicide.
The years have brought better times and he helped many over the years. Gualtier has spent the last half century as a volunteer, assisting veterans and with the local American Legion post.
But, Gualtier had never experienced anything like ovation received Saturday night.
“I was at the football game last night and 60 some thousand people last night just raved,” said Gualtier.
“They shook that place. They just stood up and just kept cheering – tears running down my eye.”
Gualtier’s picture was put up on the large video screen in the end zones along with the reason he was being honored.
Several from Vinton and Benton County attend the Hawkeye games routinely and were impressed with the response.
“His smile during the recognition was worth a million bucks,” said Connie Barnes, who with her husband, Mike, attends all of the Hawkeye’s home games.
“We were so happy for this recognition. People in our section were amazed he was a Word War II vet.”
The Gualtier recognition came in a break between the first and second quarter.
“The applause began before the announcer had finished reading his bio,” said Barnes. “I’ve been going to Hawkeye games for years and I do believe it was one of the loudest and longest applauses I’ve witnessed. I saw other men taking their hats off and waving it to him.
“The entire stadium of 70 some thousand were on their feet. It was a special moment and put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye.
“Because I know his story I sincerely hope yesterday will forever put to an end some of the demons John has struggled with because of his service. It was a heroes honor yesterday.”
The recognition, which came on the night that Carson King was also honored for his $3 million donation to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. That honor was presented later in the game, which was halted to allow it to happen.
Gualtier received an invitation about the plans from the University of Iowa on Oct. 4, his 94th birthday. He has no idea of just who suggested he be honored in that fashion. He’d like to find out.
Kent Buckingham, a fellow veteran, escorted Gualtier to Kinnick Stadium.
Kari Dressen, manager, Partnership Services, Hawkeye Sports Properties, gave the Gualtier party a tour of Kinnick Stadium, named after Nile Kinnick, a University of Iowa football standout shot down during World War II while serving as a U.S. Navy Aviator.
Every room toured had food and its aroma made Gualtier hungry. He finally was given some popcorn on which to munch.
“I had no idea that place was that big,” said Gualtier.
At five foot four inches tall, Gualtier had difficulty watching the game from the sidelines because of the size of the players, coaches, photographers and others standing next to the field.
Gualtier did watch the Color Guard and as they left the field he chased after them, running to catch up with them. He wanted his photo taken with the four soldiers.
The episode caused some concern for Dressen, who was to stay with Gualtier throughout his time in Kinnick Stadium. All of a sudden, no one was standing beside her.
After the presentation, Gualtier and Buckingham stayed for much of the much of the game from their seats in the stands.
As the air chilled in the Iowa autumn night, they decided to leave for Vinton.
“I was shaking pretty good so Kent said to get the hell out of here,” said Gualtier.
So, they got home a few hours earlier than if they’d stuck it out to the final play.