“Looch” and Lou

A creek brought them together — muggy mornings purging the woods for green willow branches to bait, setting lines for lurking catfish, camping under the stars along the murky shoal, puttering up the stream in a johnboat that had seen better days.

These boyhood memories, and Lou Baczewski’s passion for history, inspired the Washington High School industrial tech teacher to capture his grandfather’s World War II experiences in a book the instructor hopes to have published. After showing his grandfather the 286-page memoir, Lou expected corrections, or suggestions, but all Lou “Looch” Baczewski said was, “I really liked it. It’s really good.”

On Monday, while I was writing this column, “Looch,” who had been in relatively stable health until recently, passed away at age 90. The email notification came just as I was rereading Lou’s manuscript, marveling at his grandfather’s feats, an ordinary 18-year-old drafted into the Army in 1943, who evolved into a courageous soldier, part of “The Greatest Generation,” a term coined by Tom Brokaw.

Some in our area might remember hearing about “Looch,” or recall meeting him at the Veterans Day assembly at Washington High School in 2009, following an introduction by Lou that earned him a grandfatherly embrace. He wasn’t that kind of guy, Lou stated in his memoir, but young Lou got a hug that day, as both men struggled to fight back tears.

They’d previously battled emotion in 2008, when they took part in an Honor Flight and were greeted in Washington, D.C., by well-wishers. “It took quite a bit of coaxing” for Lou to convince his grandfather to make the trip, but once it was under way he strode around with “the pride of a rock star,” Lou said, hardly the hint of a limp from a bad knee apparent in his gait.

Growing up, Lou only lived a 10-minute drive from “Looch,” who got his nickname as a boy because when his Polish mother tried to say “Lou” in English, it came out “Looch.” Though Lou said he was pretty crusty in his younger years, “Looch” mellowed as he aged. His grandfather “made a science out of fishing the shoal.”

“He just had an aura about him,” Lou said. “He didn’t say much, was quiet and calm, but when he spoke, people listened. He exuded kindness, could just light up a room.”

Lou started writing about his grandfather in 2003, but began in earnest in 2008, visiting “Looch” at home in Pocahontas, Ill., sitting around the kitchen table and tape recording his war and life stories, his wife Helen offering her input as well.

Initially “Looch” was a bit uncomfortable with the tape recorder, but as time went on he got used to it. He appreciated his grandson’s avid interest in history and his ability to ask pertinent questions. Many veterans aren’t able to delve into their painful past, but eventually “Looch” could describe the sights that burned their way into his soul, bring up buddies he’d lost, and the horror of seeing bodies in a work camp he helped to liberate.

A tank driver in the war, “Looch” took part in five European campaigns, and saw action in Germany, France and Belgium. For his efforts, “Looch” was awarded a Bronze Star. His company was comprised of 152 men, the bulk of whom died in the Battle of the Bulge. “Looch” was one of only 18 in his company to return home — back to Pocahontas, a small town nicknamed “Pokey,” about an hour from St. Louis.

About six months ago, Lou finished his grandfather’s memoir, a book filled with photographs. He was grateful “Looch” was still alive to read it.

“I had the time and the interest,” Lou said. “Most people don’t get that lucky. His story means more than anything to me right now. They broke the mold when they made him. He was the cog that held the whole family together.”

It seems fitting that “Looch,” whose memories mean so much to his grandson, should have passed away so close to Memorial Day. “Looch” left Lou with three priceless possessions, his trusty johnboat, his dog tags and stories to last a lifetime.