As a young boy, Victor slept some nights under the cover of a buffalo robe on the porch of his grandmother’s house. There, under the darkness of the robe, he read a boyhood book of adventure with a small light. An icy Midwest wind ran across the fields at his farm blowing dirt and cold at him; but like his family inside, he was tucked in, protected by the heavy robe, often waking under snow in the morning. He would be protected for a while, but could not be protected from what life was to hand him. One day, out from under the weight of that robe, would emerge a highly evolved man who grew and settled into greatness—Dr. Victor Walter Westphall.
A man’s story can have many beginnings and endings. For me, his story began 24 years before his death. I had come to interview him for a small town newspaper in the mountains of New Mexico. As I walked into his small, book-lined office, he jumped up from his desk and started doing a series of chin-ups from a bar stretched across a door frame. He lifted his small, muscular body up again and again, hoisting himself up as he would do his whole life. I thought he might be mad. Later I would learn it was a release for his immense life energy.
This book is only a glimpse of his life, compiled by Pat Mendoza, a Vietnam veteran, after digging through boxes of background and countless interviews, trying to unearth the bare bones of his story. In many ways, Victor’s life spanning most of the 20th century was ordinary; but it was what he would do with it, how many lives he would touch, that was extraordinary. Raised with two sisters by a tough, optimistic, intellectual mother and an ingenious, scrappy father, Victor was educated in a one-room school house. The lessons took; all of his life he loved learning about the world and his singular place in it; he learned lots. His roots on the Wisconsin farm taught him toughness, how to work hard, and to dream of possibilities off the farm. His college years expanded his vision, taught him to focus. His athletic prowess taught him discipline. His business ventures taught him how to survive. His wife and two sons taught him how to love deeply. His tour in the South Pacific of WWII taught him wisdom and humility. And his son’s death taught him how to rise out of grief and heal others.
Pivotal to the Westphall family story, and it was a family story, was the death of oldest son David, killed in an ambush, leading his men through the jungles of Vietnam near Con Thien—a life and death Victor himself wrote “transcends the ordinary, transcends the average.” This too would be true of Victor’s life. For out of the ashes of his son’s death was born the nation’s first memorial to Vietnam veterans, a healing center for one of our country’s most painful wars. It is difficult to separate the man from the memorial, a memorial designed to “honor all those who lost their lives in Vietnam.” It has become much more, a tribute to “the living, the dead, and the maimed in body and spirit,” for us all. Veterans of all wars and their families found in Victor a deeply caring father figure. All who come to the memorial near Angel Fire are deeply affected and have a story to share. Over a million visitors have walked through the doors, haunted then somehow healed by the stories inside. And central, of course, to the raising of that memorial — sitting bird-like, winged, on a hill overlooking a valley—is a family unwilling to be crushed by grief, perhaps guided by divine providence, dedicating their lives to “peace and brotherhood.”
That same divine hand would years later lead Victor—still wrestling, always wrestling, with the huge cost of war—on a trip back to Con Thien, an 82-year-old father following the footsteps, now grown over but very much there, of his son.
All who met Victor, friends powerful and small, considered it a privilege to be touched by him, to come close to his compassion, his huge reserves of wisdom and emotion, his strength and belief in humanity. While inside he wrestled with endless struggles, at the core of his heart Victor was a man of peace. His nature was to give, always to do it with grace and tenacity. He painted for us pictures of what a blessed thing life can be. All who try to describe him stumble, capturing only a sliver of the light cast by his broad strokes here. Still, we try.
“He seemed always to have been old and wise,” someone said.
“If he wasn’t a saint, he was as close as anybody would want to get,” said someone else.
But he was no saint, simply a portrait of what a man is capable of being.
Some, using more words, come close:
“You have provided many of us with an example of devotion and love on a scale that turns tragedy into triumph.”
“Surely we do have the cynical among us but even more surely we have those capable of discovering in your act of grace reflected something transcendent that brings to any sensitive spirit a rare moment of being bathed in pure light.”
Courage it takes to fight through anguish to erect such a memorial: ‘All the young men gone,’ with souls to know, will find the enormity of their sacrifice echoed in your labor of love. And their presence will be felt…”
Victor himself could not fully capture his light in the many books he wrote: “I have learned to be mild and meek in general, but to roar when a roar is advisable.” All of his life he roared best when railing against our last resort, our greatest weakness, to slip into war.
“I have no axe to grind, except to make the world a better place to live while I am here and after I am gone,” he wrote. That he did; and it was his axe to grind. All he could do was hold a mirror up to ourselves—challenging us all to be better and lend our hand to “the revolution for peace.”
Later in his life, true to his training as an historian, Victor often wondered about his place in history. Would he be remembered for creating the memorial, as a thinker, visionary, dreamer, doer? Or for one of his eight books, inventions, world records? As a soldier, father, husband, teacher, healer? Prior to his death in July 2003, there was a move underway to nominate him for the Presidential Peace Award, the highest civilian honor in the land. That honor may never come to be. But if you were lucky enough to know him, you knew he was deserving, for just his sacrifices alone, of any honor given him.
“These hands have aged so much these last years,” he told me, standing behind the wheelchair he pushed around. He was trying to resurrect a lost memory about his beloved cat Smokie. Shaking his head at himself over unforgiven forgetfulness on a detail of his life’s story, humble to the end. Even though you could feel the weight of the buffalo robe he had spread before him. He watches now, quickly, over our shoulders, listening to his story as we, like children following their father on a trail trace the trail of a 20th century hero, a hero for peace.
– Joe Haukebo
A Hero’s Trail: The Life of Dr. Victor Walter Westphall, a biography adapted from original text by Pat Mendoza.