Family, friends remember Ralph Hauenstein on his 110th birthday
Family and friends gathered at the Loosemore Auditorium on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus on March 16 to remember and honor Ralph Hauenstein, founder of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, for his 110th birthday celebration.
Hauenstein died in 2016 at the age of 103, but those who knew him remembered a man grounded in faith who always looked for the best in people and remained haunted by what he had seen in combat during World War II.
Moderated by Brian Hauenstein, Ralph’s youngest grandchild, the panel consisted of Gleaves Whitney, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation and former director of the Hauenstein Center; Dennis Leiber, former Kent County Circuit Court judge; and John Van Laar, former president and CEO of Warner-Lehara, Hauenstein’s bakery machinery company.
“Everything for him was grounded in faith,” said Brian Hauenstein.
Hauenstein’s public service began when he joined the U.S. Army in 1935 at age 23 and underwent officer training. After two and a half years in military service, he returned to Grand Rapids, becoming editor of the Grand Rapids Herald at age 27.
He returned to active duty in December 1940, rising to the rank of colonel and working as chief of the Intelligence Branch in the European theater during World War II under General Dwight Eisenhower. He was among the first group of American soldiers to liberate Paris and witness the horrors of Dachau.
“He had these scars in his hand from his time at Dachau,” said Whitney. “They had liberated a satellite camp which was a women’s camp. This woman grabbed Ralph’s hand and wouldn’t let go. Her nails were pressing into his hand so tightly that it left those scars.”
The psychological effects of war took a toll on Hauenstein, but his faith remained steadfast. He had converted to Roman Catholicism at age 19 and confided to friends he prayed the rosary every day. In 1960, he was named president of Serra International, a lay organization for Catholics to support vocational training, and later served as an auditor at the historic Second Vatican Council in Rome.
“Ralph was instantly filled with direction of service to the church,” said Leiber. “He is really the one that made Serra International, international.”
The Hauenstein Center was founded in 2001 to help students develop leadership skills and engage the Grand Rapids community with conversations about history, politics and civics.
“Ralph and I had a lot of talks,” said Whitney. “He was the wisest man I knew. The one thing I wanted to ask him was where did his resilience come from? I think it came from this incredible community we’re in. People taking care of people. That was the Grand Rapids he grew up in.
“When I’m having a bad day, I think of Ralph bouncing back with resilience.”