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Still waving high and wide at 95

World War II veteran Herb Rubenstein turns 95 today, Flag Day. Herb traditionally helps lead Vail's July 4th parade.
Special to the Daily |

EDWARDS — If Herb Rubenstein had gotten on the Swiss watch making tour in the waning days of World War II, he would never have learned to ski, and he would never have landed in Vail.

Herb is 95 years old today, Flag Day. He fought in World War II where the Nazis made serious attempts to kill him several times a day. He saw action at the Battle of the Bulge, and many other battles.

The Jewish kid from Brooklyn helped liberate a Nazi death camp.

“It’s been a good trip. Ups and downs,” Herb said.

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Every story is history

Everything is a story, and every story is a delight. Like that time that watchmaking tour of Switzerland was full, so the Army sent him skiing in Arosa, Switzerland instead.

His first time on skis he rode a J bar lift up a steep incline with a cliff on one side, and trees on both sides.

“I said, ‘I survived combat, and I’m gonna get killed falling off this thing!” Herb said.

He didn’t of course.

“I fell in love with skiing, which was very important in my life,” Herb said.

Then he fell in love with Thelma.

His version tends to sound a little like a Mae West movie. She was a reporter with the Newark Star-Ledger, meeting troop ships as they returned stateside. As a journalist, her stories tend toward the factual.

“After the war I met Thelma. That’s that goddess sitting there,” Herb said, nodding across the table at his bride. “We became engaged.”

“He picked me up at a gas station,” Thelma said.

On that part they agree.

Herb was on his way to a date with a girl named Bernice. His gas tank was empty, so he stopped for fuel. Thelma wandered over to tell him that the service station attendant was fixing her car, and would be along in a moment.

Herb was driving either a new convertible or an old jalopy, depending on who’s telling the story.

They talked, as folks will do, and she left him with her business card. He left her with a big piece of his heart.

It took a month for him call her, Thelma said.

“I had to get rid of all my other girlfriends,” Herb said smiling.

They met in December or January, he called her in April and they got married in July.

“What took me so long?” Herb said laughing.

“I said to Thelma, ‘I could get you a ring, but you can’t do anything but look at the ring. I’ll get you a pair of skis and boots at Macy’s, and we could have a lot of fun,’” Herb said.

If you’ve survived combat, helped liberate death camps, and unloaded troop ships, fun is the meaning of life. The skis won that day, but for the record Thelma wears a beautiful wedding ring.

When she spoke with her parents, her mother asked, “Did he get you a ring?”

“No,” Thelma replied. “He got me a pair of skis.”

Her mother said, “Get rid of that guy. He’s a loser.”

She didn’t, of course. Instead she learned to ski, “reluctantly,” in upstate New York, she says.

They got married and have two beautiful kids. Thelma left journalism to become an English teacher.

“I liked what I did in life,” Thelma said. “Nothing was easy but it was all worthwhile.”

Life with the death camp

Herb served in the combat infantry, with a detour through the Army Air Corps after college where they trained him as a navigator. For better or worse, the Allies knocked out the Luftwaffe, so back to the infantry he went.

He grows quiet as he recalls the day they found that Nazi death camp.

“You see these guys in these trenches. All the bodies. The remaining people were like corpses, no meat on them. They weighed 40 or 50 pounds,” Herb said.

The soldiers’ first impulse was to feed them, but they dared not, Herb said.

“If they digested too much food they would die, and a lot of them did die,” Herb said.

Herb brought home a huge Nazi flag. Eventually, Thelma threw it away.

The Army wanted him to stick around after the war, and offered him a job as a land accountant in upper Austria, work done by a full Colonel. Home beckoned when his brother sent word from New York, “Get your ass over here. We have a company to build.”

So, Herb and his brother Ed took over his father’s dental supply business. The Daylin Corporation’s Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank – they started Home Depot and Blank owns the NFL Atlanta Falcons – Ed and Herb’s business.

Matters of the heart

Along the way, Herb had some heart trouble. One of his best friends was Dave Grayson, who owned First Investors. Grayson convinced Herb to start running, and at the tender age of 56, Herb did.

“I loved running and I loved the outdoors,” Herb said.

“His doctor told him not to do it, but was so impressed with the condition of his heart that he started running,” Thelma said.

He ran his first marathon at 57, and ran five until he quit running at age 62.

“I lost all of them,” Herb deadpanned. “You know Bill Rodgers, the running guru? I ran against him and I didn’t beat him.”

They started taking ski vacations to Colorado, and skied Vail 40 years when, one day Thelma said in passing, “Boy, I could live out here.”

“He jumped to the sky,” Thelma said.

That was two decades ago. There’s a Herb Rubenstein bench in Freedom Park.

“It’ll only cost you a dollar an hour to sit on it,” Herb said laughing.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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