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Paying respects to the colonel
by Larry Wilson
Jul 21, 2008 | 470 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Col. Bill Ralf died recently. He was 93 years old at the time of his death. He had been the professor of military science at the University of Nevada, Reno in the mid-1960s during the Vietnam War. When he was the professor, as a student, you tended to give him a wide berth when you were near the headquarters and especially his office. You never knew what sort of mood he was in and you certainly didn’t want to stand for a dose of his wrath, if that was his mood at the time.

Normally, everyone got along with him quite well, but he had his moments. We all wanted to graduate and be commissioned and he held the power to do that and you didn’t want to do something to rock the boat. Generally, we only went near the headquarters (Hartman Hall) for classes or sometimes for our Tuesday and Thursday drills.

I graduated and was commissioned at the same time in January 1969. I would have graduated in June 1968, but the Advanced ROTC classes added more credits, thus I graduated when I did. I went through all my training and in May 1970, I was en route to Vietnam and had been promoted to first lieutenant on paper. I thought it would be nice to have a little promotion ceremony at the ROTC headquarters with Col. Ralf, but by that time, he had already retired, so Col. Hill, his replacement, conducted the ceremony.

I went through my service to the Army and was discharged in June 1973 and came back to the Reno area. I didn’t even know Col. Ralf still lived in the area. I was teaching school at one of the local elementary schools and saw him in the office. He was organizing a tennis lesson program for area kids. I never knew he was even interested in tennis. Apparently, he was a pretty good tennis player. I never would have picked tennis as a sport that he would be remotely interested in, but then, what did I know? His tennis program for kids was quite successful.

Years went by and out of the blue, I got a phone call from Col. Ralf. He wanted me to come for coffee at the Coney Island Bar on Galletti Way on Tuesday mornings. You have to go in the back door, through the kitchen to the dining room for coffee at 7 a.m. The clandestine directions alone were intriguing enough to force me to go, so I did. The eclectic group included people I knew from Sparks High School, UNR and Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, among others. It was, and is, a lot of fun. Col. Ralf was there as well. John Bengston, another UNR ROTC graduate, drove Col. Ralf, as he didn’t drive anymore. I thought, “The gang’s all here.” And they were.

I never knew why Col. Ralf called me, of all people, to attend these coffee klatches until I went to his memorial service over the weekend. He and I hadn’t been very close when I went to UNR as I mentioned. I didn’t know anything of his personal life in those days. He and his wife, Rosalie, had been married more than 60 years. They had three daughters. That was it. He never had a son and in some way, all of us ROTC guys were his sons. That’s why he kept track of us all those years. We were the sons he never had. He never told us this little secret about the son, but it all made sense when I went to that service.

Col. Ralf could tell you where almost every one of those ROTC graduates was located today. Colonel Ralf had a memory that was unbelievably keen. Of all the ROTC graduates who went on to serve in Vietnam, I know of only one who was killed in action there. In large measure, Col. Ralf and the training he and his cadre did for us in a crazy sort of way also protected us, just like a dad would do for his son. Maybe that’s why he was called “the old man.”

Larry Wilson is a 50-year resident of Sparks and a retired elementary school teacher. You can contact him at lawilson16@aol.com.
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