Veteran without family honored by military funeral, nursing home staff

Becky Vargo • Nov 17, 2017 at 8:00 AM

A man without a family was nevertheless surrounded by love and respect during his funeral service in Grand Haven.

A social media request by an American Legion member helped attract people to the service for Gordon Hale, a World War II veteran. He died Nov. 10 and was laid to rest at Lake Forest Cemetery on Thursday afternoon.

The 90-year-old Grand Rapids native had no known family, other than some of his caretakers for the past 14 years at Sanctuary at the Shore in Grand Haven. Many of those caretakers, including nurses and social workers, attended Thursday’s solemn event.

“He would have hated all this pomp and circumstance,” said social worker Melissa Orsini-Zirkle, noting all of the flags and uniformed military personnel gathered around. “But he had a great sense of humor and I think this is his sign,” she said as a rain/snow mix blew through the cemetery while the final words were spoken.

Hale was born Nov. 23, 1926, in Grand Rapids, but nursing home officials said they had no record of any family.

A longtime barber, Hale enlisted in the U.S. Navy a day shy of his 18th birthday in 1944. He was honorably discharged, but that date is unknown.

Sanctuary at the Shore Director Nancy Ritchie said Hale worked as a barber for many years at the former Pantlind Hotel (now the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel) in downtown Grand Rapids. Lee Ann Darling, who has worked at the Grand Haven home for 10 years, said she immediately became attached to the man she called “Papa,” after discovering he had been her father’s barber in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

“He owned his own barber shop on Alpine Avenue near 4 Mile,” Darling said. “He used to cut my dad and brothers’ hair. I can still see the red and white-striped barber pole.”

RELATED: See more photos from the event at the Tribune photo gallery.

Darling said that Hale was a good guy and was funny.

“He was one of those crusty, grumpy old men, but he had love inside,” said Karen Nisja, a nurse at Sanctuary at the Shore. “He called all of us ‘Mother.’” 

Ritchie said that Hale liked to tease the staff and had a nickname for almost everyone.

“People were very fond of Gordon,” she said. “I was very sad when he passed. I’ve known him his entire stay with us. He was such a part of our day.”

Although he had no family, he was surrounded by staff, such as Nisja, who said, “He was really a blessing to us. I truly appreciated him in my life.”

Brenda Jackson, who has served as Hale’s guardian, said she was very moved by the showing of support at the man’s funeral.

“It’s very heartwarming because Gordy had no family, other than the caregivers,” she said. “They were very good to him.”


Nisja said Hale lived at Community Haven and Robbinswood Living Center before moving to Sanctuary at the Shore in 2003. Jackson said Hale’s record at the time said he had no siblings, no children and no spouse. It did show that he was divorced.

The staff members agreed that the man was a bit of a loner, liked his routine and loved his music.

Hale sang in a barbershop quartet, but it is unknown which one. He liked to sing along when they had musicians entertain the residents. He also liked to sing along to music videos.

Darling said there are many people at Sanctuary at the Shore like Hale who have no family or few visitors.

“Maybe this will inspire more people to visit people in a nursing home,” she said.

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