The sound of the bugler playing taps broke the silence at the small cemetery in Lyons, Kansas, on Nov. 13, 2017, as Leonard Allen Shankle was laid to rest.
Dawn Bremer, who had flown from Houston to Wichita, Kansas, the night before to make the 90-minute drive with Shankle’s ashes, sat before his gravestone — honoring a man she had never met.
“On behalf of the United States Navy, the president of the United States, and a grateful nation, we thank Leonard for his service and thank you for honoring him,” the head of the U.S. Navy honor guard told her. “God bless you.”
Bremer, an associate for the Investment and Fiduciary Services group of Wells Fargo Private Bank, took the folded flag into her hands and wiped away a tear on the cloudy, blustery day.
While sad that Shankle, who had died at the age of 94, had no remaining family to join her at the cemetery, she was proud to be there to honor the World War II veteran who also happened to be her client.
“Here is this man who gave three years of his life to serving his country, and cared for the planes naval aviators used to fly and win World War II, and he had no one there,” said Bremer.
“It just struck me that there are so many people who live interesting lives that you pass by every day, and don’t know who they are or what they are about,” Bremer continued. “As the cemetery’s sexton (caretaker) said, ‘He was a veteran. He served this country, and we owe him dignity and respect.’”
He ‘always sought to be a better person’
Shankle served at the naval air station in Norman, Oklahoma, from 1942 to 1945. As an aviation machinist’s mate second class, he cared for the biplanes that taught naval aviators how to fly before they headed off to combat.
Stephanie Hixon, who manages the Moore-Lindsay Historical House Museum in Norman, said the air station was one of two Navy operations in the town then. In addition to the naval air station, Norman also had the Naval Air Technical Training Center, where men and women trained for 18 weeks to become radar operators, machinists, metalsmiths, and hold other aviation posts.
While not much is known about Shankle after his wartime service, he eventually left Oklahoma and settled with his wife Mary in Texas. Houston neighbor Ursula Schiefelbein recalled him as a quiet but inquisitive man and learned petrochemical engineer.
“Leonard had a very scientific mind and wanted to learn about everything he could, whether it was genealogy, coins, stamps, or other interests,” Schiefelbein said. “He loved education (Shankle left gifts to Southern Methodist University, Rice University, and the University of Tulsa), and always sought to be a better person.
“He told me he and Mary met and fell in love after a car hit her dog, and he walked up and consoled her.”
Both Shankle and his wife became blind by different diseases a few years before their deaths. “When Mary’s sight went, he did not leave her side and devoted himself to her care until she died,” Schiefelbein said.
“When his own sight went, due to macular degeneration, I remember him calling us on the way back and saying, matter-of-factly, from the big Cadillac he had, ‘I am blind. I can’t see,’” she said. “Somehow, he got home. But he never drove again after that.”
A chance discovery
Bremer’s trip to Lyons was set in motion the summer after Shankle’s death on Feb. 6, 2017.
Based in Houston, Bremer and co-worker Randy Bond, a senior fiduciary advisory specialist, are part of the IFS team that provides investment management, trust administration, estate settlement, and other services for Wells Fargo Private Bank clients.
While managing the settlement of Shankle’s estate, Bond stumbled across an old military-issued life insurance policy for Shankle, prompting him to begin looking into the possibility of having him buried with military honors. First, Bond and Bremer needed to find evidence of his military service.
“Many outsiders suggested it would be too complicated to proceed with a military burial,” said Bremer, who thought the naysayers might be right after learning of a fire in St. Louis at a Veterans Affairs storage facility and fearing Shankle’s records were among those lost.
Fortunately, the records were located, along with the confirmation of military rank needed for the bronze niche marker from the VA for Shankle’s headstone.
“It’s like a lot of things that can come up in our work several months into an estate settlement,” Bond said. “People will ask me, ‘How do you find everything?’ The answer is: trial and effort. Many people do not have a perfect, clean firebox with perfect documentation inside and all their files in order. A royalty check will arrive and you’ll learn they had gas and oil holdings, for example, and you’ll go from there.
“When there are no adult children and no spouse it gets really tricky,” Bond continued. “We became intimately familiar with Mr. Shankle’s needs and took care of him because it was up to us. There was no one else to do it.”
“I was proud we could pay tribute to him.”
Bond and Bremer learned Shankle hadn’t ordered a headstone for his wife’s grave, so they added that to their research, too — matching the stone to her family’s other markers nearby. They knew Shankle would have wanted that.
“As we investigated and documented his military service, we kept asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to honor his final wishes and make our final respects as memorable and heartfelt as possible?’” Bond said.
“Being there for clients, particularly when they have no one to turn to and no one to trust later in life or after death is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Mr. Shankle’s story is a classic case of a widower or widow with no children and family.”
Bremer said that Shankle was given great respect on his final journey home. He even impacted several travelers along the way when they learned his story, including the Transportation Security Administration agent who inspected the package containing the urn and Shankle’s remains.
“He told me he was not married, didn’t have kids, and could be in a similar circumstance, and was struck that Wells Fargo would go to these lengths to honor him,” she said. “The airline crew members were visibly grateful — and pleasantly surprised — that Wells Fargo would make sure Mr. Shankle was cared for all the way to his burial, and were humbled by his military service.
“I was proud we could pay tribute to him,” she continued, “and think it shows the true character of our team and company. I’m glad I could be there for Mr. Shankle and not only carry out his wish to be buried next to his wife and her family but also ensure he was properly honored for his military service. It was the right thing to do.”
Wells Fargo Private Bank and Wells Fargo Wealth Management and Abbot Downing, a Wells Fargo business, provide products and services through Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. and its various affiliates and subsidiaries. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. is a bank affiliate of Wells Fargo & Company.