In the heat of a heated presidential campaign, veterans recall a more civil time and tone

  • Veteran Gary Simard at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • These four veterans at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton have seen many elections between them. Clockwise from top left: Gary Simard, 73, Doris Zang, 95, Robert Shaine, 92, and Richard Milyaro, 72. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • World War II veteran Doris Zang at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Veteran Robert Shaine at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Vietnam-era veteran Richard Milyaro at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Saturday, November 05, 2016

In the 1930s and ’40s, Doriz Zang sat with her family, listening to FDR’s Fireside Chats on a radio with big black dials.

In the 1950s, Richard Milyaro sat in a park near his home and heard a stump speech by a man named Ike.

And in the 1960s, Bob Shaine sat in the driver’s seat, chauffeuring JFK around during a campaign stop, while Gary Simard watched this same political giant on a TV with rabbit ears and no remote.

Wars, both hot and cold, raged in those days, but the seniors I spoke with at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, always a gold mine for historical context, described a more peaceful time. More unified, too.

At least when talking about the presidential elections of the day. Nowadays, two days before the election, there’s more venom flying around – and has been for months – than a King Cobra convention at the Mongoose Inn.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Zang said. “Never, ever. Just nasty. It’s appalling.”

She’s 95 but looks 20 years younger. She served in the Air Force in Europe from 1944 to ’45, the final two years of World War II. She grew up in New York state and worked as a telephone operator and in a school office.

Her mind initially rewound to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president during the Great Depression and the Second World War, and the lone president to be elected four times. She said FDR was a comfort during dark days.

A comfort. Imagine that.

“I remember how great he was when he spoke,” Zang told me during our round-table discussion. “I remember the Fireside Chats, and you needed it then because it was during The Depression and then the war.”

For Milyaro, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran from Lawrence, Mass., Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famed smile, a beacon of light while we eyed the Soviet Union with anxious eyes, hit him hard at a place called Campagnone Park, right near his home. He was 13, and his recollection of the man a nation called Ike was one of good vibrations, directed toward one of America’s greatest leaders.

Ah, those were the days.

“Our eighth grade class was allowed to go outside to the park to hear him,” said Milyaro, a former machinist and custodian, wearing a hat with an eagle and an American flag. “It was very interesting. I’d never seen someone running for president or anything like that, and it was just overwhelming and I liked him ever since. Plus he was a World War II hero, a five-star general.”

John F. Kennedy is remembered as a uniter as well, justifiably or not. Firm with the Russians, and blessed with great charisma and speech-making abilities, JFK’s death from an assassin’s bullet in 1963 remains one of the saddest days in American history.

Kennedy was also the hottest topic among our panelists, due in part because his face-off with GOP candidate Richard Nixon was the first televised debate in history.

“I loved Kennedy,” said the 73-year-old Simard of Nashua, who worked in a printing factory and served in Vietnam. “I think he was a great, great president. I watched (the debate) and he was just totally impressive, the sound of his voice, and he meant what he said, a strong and determined person.

“I think being on TV was his downfall,” Zang added. “Kennedy spoke so well, and Nixon, who needed a shave, was right beside him.”

None of our distinguished guests had a closer or more personal view of Kennedy than Shaine, a 92-year-old former entrepreneur. He served in the Navy in both the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II. He’s from Cambridge, Mass., but moved to Manchester in 1960 to help coordinate the Kennedy campaign.

He rented a home near JFK headquarters in Manchester so his family could visit. He said he drove the future president around during the campaign season, and his story gained credibility when he added that a man named Roger Brassard did most of the chauffeuring in the day.

A quick Google search for Brassard showed a 2003 obit from Phaneuf Funeral Homes: It read, in part: “In 1960 he was named first in the nation as state chairman for JFK’s presidential election campaign as well as a N.H. floor delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

“In 1961 Mr. Brassard was appointed. . . as official representative of New Hampshire to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as president of the USA.”

Works for me. Shaine also said he taped a Nixon speech in Burlington Vt., and sent it to Kennedy’s brother, Bobby Kennedy, in Washington, D.C., just before the ’60 election.

“I had a letter from Bobby thanking me for sending him Nixon’s speech,” Shaine told me. “I worked in northern New Hampshire and Vermont and Maine for Kennedy. I organized everything from press releases to some of the chauffeuring.”

His liberal roots remain: Shaine cast his absentee ballot for Hillary Clinton, whom he said he met at his home in Manchester, along with Bill Clinton, during the 1992 campaign. “1200 Union Street,” Shaine said, once again adding legitimacy to his claim.

Zang has also voted for Clinton and Simard said he’ll vote for the Democratic nominee as well when residents are bused to the poll on Tuesday.

Milyaro? He’s voting for Trump Tuesday, despite supporting Bill Clinton twice and Al Gore in 2000.

“Trump would talk like I would think,” Milyaro told me. “I thought a lot of what he says I believe in. Our borders should be secured. It’s about time. We just let everyone in and they come in here and live in this country for free, while people like the veterans and senior citizens are living on a fixed budget.”

Simard listened calmly to his friend. “He votes and that is all I care about,” Simard said. ‘I would never knock Richard for that.”

“I love this man,” Milyaro said.

The two vets then fist pumped, before discussing media bias during the election process.

“Everything comes out, nothing about Trump,” Simard said. “With Clinton, it’s boom, boom, boom. Clinton has been cleared of everything.”

“I wouldn’t say she’s been cleared,” Milyaro said. “They’ve moved to investigate her. You’ve got to be realistic and look at the whole picture.”

And so it goes.