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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Way I see it – RIP Toby Keith


On June 30, 2017, I was conducting escort duties for three WWII Veterans from the Judd Kendall VFW Post. I had to bring them to the Naperville Ribfest’s Main Stage, where Toby Keith was scheduled to headline.

I arrived at the Post 15 minutes early, and, of course, all three Vets were already there, waiting for me. There was George Hogrewe, who had sailed aboard Navy ships from the Aleutians to the South Pacific; Bill Howland, an Army Medic, who fought his way through Italy, was captured by the Germans and then promptly escaped; and Don O’Reilly, who served in the Army Air Forces in England. A tougher, more patriotic trio, I couldn’t imagine.

We piled into my car and I drove to the pre-selected spot near the old Park District Barn. From there we were whisked off in golf carts, zipping through security to the back of the Main Stage. There we found ourselves in a bustling, chaotic milieu of roadies, musical instruments, lights and huge speakers and amps. We were directed to four chairs just off to the right of the stage and advised that “Mr. Keith would be up soon” to meet us.

After we were seated a Roadie walked up and handed us all ear plugs. The four of us must have looked confused, because the Roadie had to explain that in a few minutes it was going to get very, very loud.

A minute or two later, Toby Keith ascended the back stairs. The huge crowd assembled out front was chanting “Toby! Toby!” and the excitement of the upcoming show was palpable. He walked straight toward us, and in correct military tradition, he palmed his very own Challenge Coin into our hands as he shook them.

Looking at me he joked, “I know you’re not a WWII Vet!”

I explained my role that evening as their escort, and that I would wait in the wings while they performed their Color Guard duties. Toby then gave the three of them a few final directions and strode off onto center stage and the bright lights.

The crowd went crazy! Toby turned to us and introduced the WWII Veteran Color Guard, and almost impossibly, the crowd went even crazier. It was a fantastic sight!

As the National Anthem played, the three WWII Vets stood ramrod straight. Patriotism and love filled the air – Naperville at its best. Toby made a few more comments and then the three were ushered back to their seats. I told them to make sure their ear plugs were in tight. About five seconds later all hell broke loose. The guitars, horns, drums and piano simultaneously exploded in a cacophony of bone rattling sound.

All three men grimaced and covered their ear plugged ears with their hands. They momentarily reminded me of Edward Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” They toughed it out for two songs, but I could tell they were miserable. So after the second song I asked them if they wanted to stay. None of them was going to be the first to crack. They each said, pointing to the other, “Well, I’ll go if he wants to go.”

As the third song started, and the avalanche of sound rained down upon us, I stood up and said, “I can’t take it anymore, fellas, let’s get out of here.” I didn’t have to ask twice. We exited backstage, and within a few minutes we were back in my quiet car. The three of them were still shell shocked.

Don was the first to speak. “I don’t know how they can call that music!” The other two agreed. I decided to take a circuitous route back to the Post to avoid all the traffic and pedestrians. It also gave me time to slip in a CD I had sitting in my console. As soon as Nelson Riddle’s orchestra began playing, Frank Sinatra’s crooning voice filled the car like a warm, soothing blanket. They slumped back into their seats and George exclaimed, “Now this is music.”

Back at the Post, the four of us had a few drinks and talked excitedly about the night’s events. We all agreed that the crowd’s cheers and exuberance were something we would never forget. And like school kids admiring their code rings, we marveled at the Challenge Coins Toby had presented us.

Whether you’re a fan or not, there’s no denying Toby Keith was the real deal. Bigger than life – he loved his country; respected its Veterans; and played some really, really loud music!

RIP Toby.

Postscript and photos via Jim Hoch after visiting 102-year-old Veteran

Figured I’d write a quick note about my visit with Don O’Reilly, and attach a couple photos.
For those who don’t know, Don is on hospice, so he isn’t eating much. He says he drinks most of his meals. He doesn’t have much taste or smell, but he is in remarkably good spirits and will carry on conversations on a wide range of topics. So those of you who are car buffs, he will regale you with all of the cars he has owned, and his daughter has brought in pictures of those cars with Don in his prime. What a hoot!
Those of you who are Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman or other big band era buffs, he probably would love to have a spirited discussion on why that is the BEST and ONLY music!!! He talked about all the times he went to see Mr. Miller, and especially while he was in the military back in the 1940’s!!!
I told Don about his article in Positively Naperville, written by Pablo, but he hadn’t seen it yet; so I left, went to the VFW, picked up a bunch of copies and returned back (to St. Patrick’s Residence) to continue my visit. The pictures I attached are of Don reading PN and the article. 
Now at St. Patrick’s Residence, 102-year-old Don O’Reilly enjoyed reading “The Way I See It,” a story with memories of Ribfest that included a photo of the World War II Veteran.
Pablo, I’ve got to say he read and savored every word, and said that he remembered it well. I started laughing when he raised his arms up and put his fingers into his ears….saying it was indeed VERY LOUD!!! 
Don O’Reilly reminisces about Toby Keith, loud music and a challenge coin with friend and photographer Jim Hoch.
I asked about the challenge coin Toby gave to Don and he told his daughter that it was in the box on his dresser, along with a bunch of other challenge coins collected over the years. The family will go looking for that challenge coin!
All in all a great visit and I intend to go back. —Jim Hoch
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P. Araya
P. Araya
Pablo Araya grew up in Naperville and enjoys writing about his experiences in the Navy, the FBI and growing up in the best town around. Contact Pablo at boblow9913@gmail.com.