Saturday, February 2, 2013

Two (or maybe three) Degrees of Separation

   Three of my Facebook friends have forwarded me a rather touching story, purported to be true, about a teacher whose life was changed by a forlorn kid who is so inspired by her that he grows up to be a famous doctor and has the wing of a hospital named after him. The story, accompanied by a picture of a famous painting by Norman Rockwell, is a genuine tearjerker. The only problem, according to a meticulously researched article at, is that it's fiction, and like some kind of urban legend has been making the rounds since before the Internet was of kindergarten age.
   What isn't fiction, however, is a link between the Rockwell painting, which is titled "Happy Birthday, Miss Jones" but may be more commonly known as "The Teacher," and the 712th Tank Battalion.
   Prior to World War II, Edward L. Forrest, who would become a lieutenant in the 712th, lived in Stockbridge, Mass. After graduating from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., he worked for a year or two at the Stockbridge Bank, and later taught at Williams High School. His best friend was Dave Braman, who would be a fighter pilot in World War II and later would become the postmaster in Stockbridge.
   Ed Forrest was rail thin, wore glasses, had blond hair, and would have been right at home in a Rockwell painting. Rockwell, who moved to Stockbridge in the early 1950s, used local people as models for some of his paintings. But Ed would never get the chance to be in a Rockwell painting: He was killed on April 3, 1945, in an explosion in the village of Heimboldshausen, Germany.
   Dave Braman's wife, Anne, however, did pose for Rockwell -- as the teacher in "Happy Birthday, Miss Jones" -- and Anne Braman worked with Ed at the Stockbridge Bank before the war. I had the great fortune to meet the Bramans during a visit to Stockbridge when I went to interview Dorothy Cooney, who was Ed's girlfriend when he went overseas. There's also a video shown at the Rockwell museum in which Dorothy can be seen riding her bicycle down Main Street. And Dave Braman's father, who owned a general store in town, posed in a painting called "The Marriage License."
   There's more about the Bramans in an article at, but here's an excerpt:
The man who posed as the town clerk in The Marriage License was Jason Braman, who ran the little department store in town. His daughter-in-law, Anne Braman, says Rockwell picked him for a special reason. Braman's wife had just died, and Rockwell thought posing for a painting might snap him out of his depression.
"Norman said he had used people like that before, that it seemed to cheer people up," Anne Braman says. "And it did. After the Post cover came out, dad was just so proud. People came around to see him and he'd say, 'Would you like me to sign my name on your magazine?'" The next year, Jason Braman died.
Anne Braman's turn to gain a measure of immortality came in 1956. Rockwell asked her to pose for a Post cover that also turned out be one of his most enduring. It was called Teacher's Birthday.
She was not a teacher. At the time, she recalls, she was working either in the family store or as a receptionist at the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric care center in Stockbridge.
But to Rockwell in 1956, she was the perfect model for the school teacher, and she says she had no trouble with the role.
"He asked me to wear tailored clothes, but I've always worn tailored clothes, so that wasn't hard. He really went into details, though. I forget what kind of shoes I wore, but he didn't like them. We were at the grammar school posing with the children, and my shoes bothered him. His wife, Mary, was there and he asked her to take off her shoes. I put on her shoes, and he liked them for the picture. They were abou three inches too big for me, but he said they were fine. He was such a perfectionist.
She has no idea where the original painting is now. A great many of Rockwell's Post covers and inside illustrations have disappeared. Once he finished them, they became the property of the magazine.
"I suppose," says Anne Braman, "that some executive at The Saturday Evening Post had a daughter who was a teacher and he asked if he could have the painting. So they gave it to him. I often said to Norman, 'Who would want it, who would want it?'"
   Ed Forrest was the one name I remembered from my father's stories when I was a kid, so when I began going to reunions of the 712th Tank Battalion in the late 1980s I would ask the veterans if they could tell me anything about him, as well as about my father. Ed was one of the battalion's original officers, was wounded in Normandy in July (within a day of my father being wounded), returned in November and was killed in April of 1945, so a lot more A Company veterans remembered Ed than remembered my dad, who joined the battalion as a replacement.

   After I published the first edition of "Tanks for the Memories" in 1994, I decided to see if I could find anyone in Stockbridge who remembered Ed. My dad said Ed's father may have been a minister. So I called information and asked if there was anybody with the last name Forrest in Stockbridge, Mass. The operator said there were none, but that in the neighboring town of Lee there were three. I asked for all three numbers, and as I recollect it didn't even cost me extra -- like tales of the Great Depression, I find stories about telephone calls to be historically important as well as entertaining, considering the dramatic changes that have overtaken the telecommunications industry. I've recorded some really fascinating stories about phone calls; unfortunately, one of them, like the story of the teacher, is probably not true, look for it in a future posting. But I digress. One of the three names I was given was that of Elmer Forrest, and thinking that was a good old-fashioned name, I called him first.

   His wife answered, and when she gave him the phone, I said that I was looking for anybody who might be related to an Ed Forrest who was killed in World War II.

   "He was my brother."

   I don't know why I immediately asked the following question, but I did: "Was your father a minister?"

   I can't recall the exact wording but his response was something like: No, my father was an alcoholic.

   I explained that my father knew Ed during the war, and said he thought that Ed's father may have been a minister. The minister, Elmer said, was Mister Laine -- the Rev. Edmund R. Laine -- whom Ed worked for as a teenager. Elmer said their mother died when Ed was 14, he had a big fight with his father, and went to live with the minister in Stockbridge.

The Rev. Edmund R. Laine and Ed Forrest

   I asked Elmer if Ed had a girlfriend before he went overseas. Elmer told me there was a woman in town who Ed dated, and that she never married and still lived in town. That woman was Dorothy Cooney, who I eventually contacted and interviewed. I also learned that although Reverend Laine had since passed away, a diary that he kept was in the history room of the Stockbridge Library. I made an appointment to see the diary, hoping to find out what was written in the entry for the day Ed was killed. I wound up photocopying the entire diary, or rather half of what was available. There were two volumes, one covering 1936 to 1940, the other from 1941 to 1945.

Dorothy Cooney (note the vintage telephone)

   Fast forward to April 3, 2008. OMG, I only just realized that that was the 63rd anniversary of the day Ed Forrest was killed. I received the following email:
Dear sir
My name is William Goertzen and I'm a teacher at a college for 12 till 17 year olds. I teach History and each year we spent about 10 weeks on World War Two. One of our fieldtrips is to Margraten, an American Burial site for soldiers killed in action; our school adopted the grave of one of these soldiers. With our classes we visit the grave once or twice a year, we pray for this man and we put some flowers at his grave in order to honor him and all those who died for the freedom of Europe and the Netherlands.
 Since October 2007 i have seen searching for information on Edward L. Forrest, 1Lt of the 712 th Tank Batallion. All I know is that he was killed in action on 3rd April 1945 and his ASN = O1017955. Now our idea is to make a wall inside the school with information and photos of Ed
Forrest, so the War becomes 'touchable' for our pupils; it becomes more 'real' if they can look at and read about this lieutenant. We also hope to honor this particular soldier by creating this wall in our school, at a place where pupils pass every hour/lesson.
 My problem is that I cannot seem to get any further on the internet. All trails lead to dead ends. I've sent forms with requests to the Department of the Army Administration section in Virginia, I've filled in a form of the NARA in Missouri, but no news yet. A mister Paul Wilson of North Carolina helped me on my way; Aparently Ed Forrest lived in Stockbridge, Berkshire County, MA., but all my nternet searches lead to dead ends.
 In all of your interviews with veterans of 712th TB, I only once came across the name of 1LT Ed Forrest, mentioned by one of the veterans. Perhaps You could help me on my way, so I could learn more about his death but especially about the man behind the name; he also has or had family; I'd like to obtain information and pictures in order to make my remembrance wall and to use it in order to point out to 12 till 17 year olds that WW2 must never be forgotten.
 I hope to hear from you very soon and I would like to thank you already for reading my mail.
 Yours sincerely
William Goertzen, teacher at Carbooncollege in the Netherlands.
   I wrote to Mr. Goertzen and told him I had a wealth of information about Ed. Elmer had since passed away, and when I tried to call Dorothy, who would have been thrilled to know that Ed's memory was being kept alive by a school in Holland, I learned that she, too, had passed away only a few months before.

   I was able to put the teacher in touch with Elmer's son David Forrest, who sent him a family portrait showing Ed as a young boy. And I sent him some of the artifacts Dorothy had given me, including a telegram telling her to meet him in Providence, R.I., before he shipped out.
  The reason there wasn't more about Ed on my web site,, when Mr. Goertzen was doing his research was because I had learned so much about Ed's difficult life and his tragic death, that I hoped eventually to include it in a book. Today there is a display in Carbooncollege about the life of Ed Forrest, the soldier whose grave the students adopted.

The display about Ed Forrest at Carbooncollege in the Netherlands
    The story of Ed Forrest's life and death is one of the key story lines in my forthcoming book, "The Armored Fist," due out in April from Fonthill Media, a prominent British publishing house.
   Please watch for an announcement or email me if you'd like information about reserving a copy to be delivered as soon as it's available.

The excerpt in Reverend Laine's diary for April 3, 1945, the day Ed Forrest was killed

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