County chronicling World War II veterans

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer

Pekin resident Dean Preston (center) visits with French Counsel General Yannick Tagand and Pascale Thome, press and communications attaché for the Consulate General of France in Chicago, after Preston was awarded the Legion of Honor Medal from the French government on Tuesday, Aug. 22. Tazewell County is looking to chronicle the lives of its remaining World War II veterans, like Preston. (Photo courtesy of Buster Hanley)

At 98 years old, Dean Preston still goes to work.

One or two days a week, he works for a couple hours as a greeter at Preston-Hanley Funeral Home & Crematory in Pekin, a business started by his cousin’s family.

“I’ve got to do something. I can’t sit around,” Preston said.

After careers at American Distilling Co. and Midwest Grain Products of Illinois, the Pekin resident retired.

Representatives of the funeral home, which was purchased by the D. Neale Hanley family in 1965, reached out to Dean Preston about joining the staff.

“They asked me to work there,” Preston said. “I said, ‘I might as well.’”

Thirty-six years later, Preston is still part of the organization.

A World War II veteran, Preston knows a little something about dedication. He served in radio maintenance for the U.S. Air Force and had to ensure communications between units. His job often took him to the front lines.

“I was just doing my job. Apparently, I did it pretty well,” Preston said in the aftermath of the French government presenting him with the Legion of Honor Medal on Tuesday, Aug. 22.

“I really did not know about the medal before getting it. It is something really good,” Preston said. “It’s more of a big deal in France than here, but it is something big. A lot of people don’t realize what’s involved in getting it. I still haven’t absorbed it all yet.”

Preston’s longtime friend at the Funeral Home, Neale “Buster” Hanley II, was one of those present for the medal ceremony.

“It was a huge highlight to be present,” Hanley said. “Our World War II veterans are becoming fewer and fewer. When they are receiving accolades, it is important for the younger generation to see what they did.

Members of the Dragon Battalion of Pekin Community High School’s JROTC program enter the medal ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Buster Hanley)

“We need these individuals to tell their stories. They are role models for the younger generation. It is so important that their stories are heard.”

Preston is one of less than 20 World War II veterans still alive in Tazewell County, according to County Clerk John Ackerman.

The County Clerk noted that all World War II veterans are at least 95 years old.

“It does not seem possible that the Greatest Generation is passing from us,” Ackerman said.

His office is working to chronicle the lives of World War II veterans while they are still with us.

Ackerman said his office’s research shows that there are 19 WWII veterans living in the county. They range in age from 95 to 106.

He said his office is figuring out just how to chronicle the lives of World War II veterans.

“We are starting the process. There seems to be interest in documenting Tazewell’s last surviving World War II veterans,” Ackerman said. “Why wait for the last one to pass? Their stories are worthwhile.”

He said his office sent letters to township officials, funeral homes and senior living facilities in the county in an effort to pinpoint remaining WWII veterans.

Ackerman said his office’s chronicling effort is a way draw attention to these heroes.

“The idea is to try to raise public awareness. Our World War II veterans are all 95 or older,” Ackerman said. “They have always been here. What are we going to do without them? I think part of the reason our nation is on the path it is on is because we are losing these individuals. We don’t want their voices to go silent.”

He said there is a 106-year-old World War II veteran in Pekin and a 105-year-old veteran in Green Valley.

The breakdown for surviving WWII veterans in Tazewell is:

Pekin – 9

Washington – 5

Hopedale – 2

Green Valley – 1

Morton – 1

Tremont – 1

Anyone who believes their WWII veteran has not been included in the list should contact the County Clerk’s Office at 309-477-2264.