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MUSEUM MUSINGS: Boone County preacher and teacher is killed in Germany

Written by David Holsted, published in the Harrison Daily Times, June 25, 2020

Early on the morning of Dec. 27, 1944, there was a knock on the door of the Cole residence in Conway. A cab driver handed Helen Cole a telegram. After reading it, Helen’s worst fears and premonitions were realized.

“Get up!” she screamed to her sleeping children. “Your daddy’s been killed.”

Merrill Cole had been a beloved teacher and school administrator. An ordained Baptist minister, he had dreamed of pastoring his own church after the war ended. Instead, those dreams died along with him on the frozen ground of Germany.

Jerry Merrill Cole was born on Oct. 28, 1908, in Boone County’s Gaither Township.

When Cole was only a few months old, his mother, Ida, died of typhoid fever, leaving his father, Orin, to raise four small children. His sister, Cassie, barely 10 years old herself, took on the role of mother, housekeeper, nurse and cook. A grief stricken Orin soon turned to alcohol and became addicted.

In 1919, Cassie married a young college professor and moved to Kansas City, taking with her nine-year-old Merrill. Three years later, Cassie’s husband abandoned the family, and she returned to Boone County with Merrill and her own two children. Cassie remarried and returned to Kansas City, but this time, Merrill stayed with his father.

Cole was forced to take care of himself. He got a job shining shoes to make a few cents. However, he often went to bed hungry.

“Often, after working all day at his shoe stand, then playing late in the neighborhood, he would slip into the dark house, remove his overalls and go to bed,” wrote Cole’s son, Bill. “Many nights he had nothing to eat at all.”

Cole managed to graduate from Valley Springs High School.

Determined to further his education, Cole enrolled at Ouachita Baptist University. Helped by the school’s president, Dr. J.R. Grant, Cole paid for his education by working in the cafeteria, as a night watchman and at several other jobs. On Sundays, he preached in one of the many Baptist churches in the area.

Learning that the ROTC would help provide tuition costs, Cole enrolled in the program and found out he loved it. He would be commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves, and be awarded a scholarship to Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

With the advent of the Great Depression, Cole found that many churches could not support a pastor full time. With a growing family to support, Cole turned to the only job available – teaching school.

In 1934, Cole got a teaching position in Omaha. Cole did whatever it took to survive. Bill Cole told of the time his father walked a cow 20 miles to the Harrison stock auction. The few dollars he got for the cow helped get his family through the summer.

In 1936, Cole’s fortunes took a dramatic upturn. He was hired as principal at Valley Springs. He also taught English and coached the basketball team. His wife, Helen, taught piano. The Coles also bought a house near the school. Monthly payments were $12.50. Cole’s monthly salary was $75.

In 1941, with war looming, Cole received notification about a plan to step up the expansion of the army. Being an ordained minister, he knew he could request a transfer to the Chaplain’s Corps and avoid combat duty. Bill Cole recalled the many hours of prayer and consideration on the part of his parents.

Cole was sure that within two years, the economy would improve to the point that churches would be able to support a pastor full-time, and he would at long last realize his dream.

“In the end, Merrill’s character and strong sense of fairness would not allow him to shirk what he considered his duty. He volunteered for active duty. I can vividly recall the anguish he displayed as he made his decision. I’m certain that he never envisioned the intensity and horrors of the great war to come.”

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Cole was assigned to Umnak, Alaska, where his unit would defend the Aleutian Islands. He spent 20 months in Alaska.

Cole was then informed that he would be sent overseas to Europe.

Bill Cole poignantly remembered his father shipping out. He seemed to have a premonition of what would happen.

As he embraced his wife at the train station, Cole said, “Sweetheart, if I don’t come back – remember that I want you to remarry. You are too young to go through life as a widow. Just think of me occasionally and remember how much I love you. I don’t want you to take the first guy who comes along – but I do want you to find someone who will take good care of you and love you as I loved you.”

Cole was assigned to the 90th Infantry, which played a major role in Gen. George Patton’s drive into Germany. Many people agreed that crossing the Saar River into Germany was almost a suicide mission for the 90th.

In addition to providing military leadership, Cole provided spiritual guidance to his men. On Nov. 23, 1944, the men of the 90th enjoyed a traditional Thanksgiving feast with turkey. Later that night, unable to sleep, Cole took his harmonica and played some traditional Ozark ballads and some old hymns that he loved. As he was putting his harmonica away, he heard a whispered request, “Sir, play ‘Amazing Grace’ one more time, please.'”

At the village of Dillingen, the Americans were met with fierce resistance by the Germans. Near-zero weather, combined with German tanks, artillery and machine gun fire took its toll.

Shortly after dawn on Nov. 29, with German artillery crashing around him, Cole signaled for his men to follow him. Crossing a road, Cole felt “a tremendous blow to his abdomen which spun him halfway around and slammed him into the frozen road. The pain was excruciating and he felt the warm blood gushing from his wound. As he writhed and screamed in agony, someone reached his position and dragged him back to cover.”

The raging battle prevented Cole from being evacuated, and his platoon remained at his side until he died a few hours later.

Merrill Cole left behind a wife and five children. He was buried in the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France. Helen Cole died in 1998.

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MUSEUM MUSINGS: William Appel had a pipe dream

Written by David Holsted, published in the Harrison Daily Times, June 17, 2020

In the spring of 1883, a 16-year-old boy from Rotterdam, Holland, arrived in New York City. Almost 60 years later, that young man, now living in Harrison, changed the world for pipe smokers.

William Appel was born on May 28, 1867, in the French province of Alsace. His father was a Frenchman, while his mother was German. In 1871, young William became a German subject when Alsace was transferred over to Germany.

When he arrived in New York, Appel was by trade a tailor and skilled pants maker. He plied that trade in his new country, while also traveling the world working as a ship’s cook.

In 1895, Appel became a naturalized American citizen. He also enlisted in the Army, serving as a private in Company A, 15th U.S. Infantry at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and Fort Grant, Arizona. In 1898, when war broke out between the United States and Spain, Appel volunteered for service. He served in Cuba with the 2nd U.S. Volunteer Infantry. He was discharged from service in 1900.

Appel also served in the Army during the troubled times along the Mexican border prior to World War I. When that war broke out, Appel served as a sergeant with the 33rd Division, Camp Logan. He was discharged in 1919. In all, Appel received four honorable discharges.

On Jan. 15, 1903, Appel married Margaret Olivia Melville in Smithville, Texas. The couple moved to Harrison in 1937 and lived there the rest of their lives.

In Harrison, Appel became known as an artist, painter and woodworker. He also became well known as a manufacturer of tobacco pipes of his own design. He was granted a patent in 1942 for his design.

In his application for the patent, Appel wrote, “This invention relates to smoking pipes and the object thereof is to provide a smoking pipe equipped so the influx of air into the bowl; the passage thereof therethrough and into the shank and therethrough; is divided and forced into controlled multiple channels of draft, thereby eliminating the gathering of moisture at the bottom of the mass of tobacco in the bowl of the pipe and also greatly reducing the temperature of the smoke, by forcing same into contact with the surfaces of multiple channels in the stem portion of the shank.”

Appel died on Jan. 29, 1955, at the Veteran’s Hospital in Fayetteville. He had been at the hospital for two weeks after suffering a stroke and heart attack. According to his obituary in the Harrison Daily Times, Appel had three younger sisters, but he had lost track of them after World War I. He was survived by his wife, Margaret.

Appel was buried in Fayetteville National Cemetery. Margaret died in 1962. She was buried next to her husband.