This is a story of a grandson and how his two grandfathers loved him. And this is a story of a boy who, because of the love shown to him, grew into a young man with his heart pointed lovingly outward toward others. This is a story of love.
As one ascends the stairs of the home where Wade Ondrovick lives with his parents, World War II era Japanese currency line the walls. The retired marine uniform of Tecumseh City Councilman Austin See hangs at attention, art and war memorabilia become visible with each step up — the stairway a preamble of what is to come. Then the stairs open into a landing and a museum begins. Original newspapers announce war information, the walls are covered in artifacts, tables and cases are full of displays, and suddenly the room begins to tell a story. Wade shows me a picture of his grandfather as a young man in his army uniform and then points me to a display case that holds his grandfather’s World War II items. “It started with these,” he says.
From the time Wade was still in a stroller, his family attended the Tecumseh Memorial Day Parade. Wade, who was born on the high functioning autism spectrum, always took his place at the parade sitting between his two World War II veteran grandfathers. Year after year the Ondrovicks took Wade to the parade, and year after year Wade sat flanked on either side by two men he loved and by two men who loved him back. There at the parade, his grandfathers would tell him how important it was to be there. They would tell him how important it was to stand and honor the veterans when they walked by. “They made sacrifices,” Wade said. “My grandpas taught me to appreciate that and appreciate my freedom.”
When Wade’s paternal grandfather passed away, the family entrusted Wade with his grandfather’s possessions from the war. For Wade, these weren’t just antiques from a war gone by. Rather, these were items that told a greater story of his grandpa. These artifacts told the story of a young man who stood up for his country when called, a young man who showed up when he was asked to give more than most of us can imagine.
Wade cherished these items and the story they told. Then Wade met Tecumseh historian Bob Elliot. When Wade saw Bob’s collection of war artifacts, it ignited within Wade a mission to begin collecting and caring for war memorabilia. Bob began to mentor Wade. Together they searched for items. Bob taught Wade how to look for the right things. With Bob’s help, Wade became a collector in his own right.
We move past the landing, past a display of World War I items, and past a World War II era radio that looms on display, large and cumbersome and a stark reminder of the weight of communication at the time. We enter a room that feels as if a soldier had simply stepped out for a moment and left behind his things. A rifle leans against a cot, and the boots are lined up at the side. Mannequins from different wars surround in uniform, some with packs of cigarettes in the headbands of the helmets. This isn’t a collection. This is a lovingly curated display of artifacts.
There are footlockers from several wars, each curated with original items. Each footlocker speaks with intimate details of soaps and razors, shaving creams and pin-up girls. They are details that make the soldiers of our wars into real men.
There is an officer’s table and chair set up with papers. There are shadowboxes on the wall, and display cases organized into artful groupings. As we move through the room, Wade gives each item the respect he feels it is due. He understands that, like his grandfather’s war possessions, each item in his safekeeping tells a story of one person and the sacrifices that person made for our freedom. So he cares for them and cares for the stories behind them.
Wade, a 2014 Tecumseh High School grad, has a busy life. He works at the Clift car dealership in Adrian and takes college courses on small engine repair. However, he continually finds ways to use his passion for collecting to both teach and heal. In high school he set up his first war display to be experienced by both the students and the public. Through this display, Wade wanted to share his grandfather’s legacy and, in doing so, share what it means to be an American. He wanted to share the notion that freedom is a gift born of sacrifice. Since that time, Wade has been asked to put on displays for Veterans Day events, parades, and events like the Adrian College’s Veteran Appreciation Night. This past Memorial Day, he set up a Civil War reenactment in his front yard. “I wanted people to see it as they went by as a way to honor the veterans,” he says. Many people stopped to look and to talk, including a general who expressed his deep appreciation for what Wade had done. Wade had decided to take donations, and in doing so, he was able to raise over $400 for the Adrian Disabled Vets.
“It has been amazing to watch Wade do this,” says his mom Debbie who accompanied us on the tour of Wade’s collection. “It’s been amazing to see this part of his heart. Through this we’ve been able to see who he is by the way he cares for these items and the way he interacts with the vets. They love him because he has such a good heart for them. Wade has such deep respect for them.” She looks at her son and her eyes tear up. “And it’s really neat to see how the vets react,” she says. “You can see it on their faces. We’ve seen a lot of tears. It’s been really wonderful to see him grow into this.”
As we continue to tour the items in Wade’s care, he is extraordinarily pleasant and extraordinarily kind. Yet he is also very quiet. His words are chosen and few, and perhaps that is all part of it. So many veterans find it hard to speak, find it hard to articulate the things they experienced. Yet maybe words aren’t always needed in the presence of these items and in the presence of this young man who curates and cares for the small details and artifacts. Rather the items themselves speak, telling the story of sacrifice and pain and pride. Without words, Wade is telling veterans in his own way that they matter. That uniform isn’t just an outfit, that footlocker isn’t just a box. Over the years, many veterans have given Wade their uniforms and other mementos from war. Many have told Wade that they worry these things won’t be valued when they are gone. They find a peace in being able to place these items into Wade’s hands and to know that he will love them, treasure them, and care for them. They know that Wade will deeply value the sacrifice and story each item represents. These aren’t just war artifacts to Wade. These are tangible pieces of people’s lives.
This is a love story of the very best kind. It is the kind of love that joyfully values and honors and heals and pours forth. It it the kind of love that inspires and brings peace. It is a love of action that doesn’t even require many words. Both of Wade’s grandfathers have passed away, but it seems that even so, Wade continues to stand between their lessons and their love.
This is a love story.