REDMOND — Hundreds of mourners, from the halls of Congress to long ago battlefields, gathered Friday to say goodbye to an American hero. About 900 veterans, family, friends, church members and politicians filled the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center in Redmond to remember World War II veteran Robert Dale “Bob” Maxwell, who was, until his death on May 11, the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor. He was 98 when he died.

Throughout the memorial service, Maxwell was remembered not only as a single man who did an incredible act, but as a monument to a generation that is fading into history.

As 23-year-old Army Technician Fifth Grade, the Bend man jumped on a German grenade in September 1944. His action was credited with saving the lives of four American soldiers, including a battalion commander.

For his actions, he received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest medal for valor and bravery.

There are just 70 living recipients. Only three are among the 472 men who received the medal in World War II.

“There is importance in remembering the greatest generation,” Kelly Fitzpatrick, director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, said to the crowd. “And he truly was one of the greatest in the greatest generation.”

Maxwell was born in Idaho in 1920. He grew up in Kansas and eventually settled in Colorado when he was drafted in 1942 during World War II. After the war, he moved to a small town in Lane County and used the GI Bill to be educated in automotive technology. Maxwell later followed his family to Central Oregon and found a job as a mechanic at a Ford dealership in Redmond. In that shop, a co-worker suggested he meet a woman named Beatrice, who became his wife for the next 54 years.

He taught auto repair and service at Bend High School and Central Oregon College before moving to Lane County in 1966. In 1996, Bend became his home permanently.

Maxwell’s courage was not his only defining legacy. Again and again, before and after the service, Maxwell was remembered as a kind, humble man who always wore a smile and made a friend anywhere he went.

Members of the Band of Brothers in Bend remember a man who would religiously share a meal with them each Monday. Arland Kunz, who met Maxwell when he joined the group in 2008, said he would always downplay his status.

“He liked it there because all he had to be was a veteran,” said Kunz.

Charles Crane, Maxwell’s minister, said during his eulogy, he remembered having theological discussions with Maxwell for months before someone had to tell him he was speaking with a decorated war veteran.

“If we think of him only as a Medal of Honor recipient, we miss the true nature of who Bob really was,” Crane said.

Maxwell’s legacy is also defined by the tangible things he left behind, said his close friend Dick Tobiason. After retirement, Maxwell became active in veterans programs, serving as a director of the Bend Heroes Foundation and helping launch programs like the Bend Parade of Flags, Bend Heroes Memorial, WWII Veterans Historic Highway, Oregon Medal of Honor Highway, Wreaths Across America, and the Character Development Program at Bend High School.

“He left a gigantic legacy to follow. He was quiet, but he did a lot of things,” Tobiason said after the service. “Instead of talking about them, he did them.”

His life was also guided by his unwavering Christian faith. A moment that captures this is the night Maxwell got into a bad car accident in Idaho, Tobiason said. Instead of using the insurance money to buy a new car, he started the Medal of Honor scholarship at Boise Bible College.

“He could have gone out and bought another car, but he didn’t,” Tobiason said.

But in the background of the day’s homage to sacrifice and selflessness was the subtle realization of the end of an era. Dick Watson, a 94-year-old World War II veteran who befriended Maxwell, reminisced about a time when reunions would draw 1,000 people. These days, it’s more like 30.

“We’re are just slowly passing away,” Watson said.

Only 400,000 men are alive out of the 16 million who served during the war from 1941 to 1945.

“As a country, we’re losing our brightest lives,” said Fitzpatrick. “That dedication of public service after (military) service was a hallmark of this generation. They didn’t just come home and return to their lives. They continued to their communities, like Bob, and other generations.”

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, who spoke at the service, over the years had become close with Maxwell after seeing him at several veterans events. He said Maxwell serves as an inspiration to service and self, as well as a reminder of what the American people can be capable of doing.

“(In World War II), we realized what evil dictators can do, and what the forces of good can do. Bob, like other G.I. Joes and Janes, was one of those forces of good. And I think that sentiment is still there and alive in today’s military.”

A processional down U.S. Highway 97 brought Maxwell to Terrebonne Pioneer Cemetery, where he was greeted by a silence that radiated reverence and solemness. It was punctured only by the sound of a 21-gun salute, a rendition of taps and the subtle flapping of dozens of flags being held by fellow veterans.

He was laid to rest next to his wife as his four daughters looked on.

Maxwell’s minister presided over the short ceremony as he said farewell to his friend.

“You were a blessing, Robert Dale Maxwell,” Crane said before the crowd dispersed.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, bvisser@bendbulletin.com

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