Although Walter Baran could come across as a bit gruff on the outside, inside he had a heart of gold. He was an intelligent man who was a logical thinker and very intuitive at the same time. Known for his loud clothes that often had an even louder golf hat to match, Wally had a quirky sense of humor and could even be a bit of a prankster at times. He was strong and determined when he put his mind to something, and he highly valued being honest and fair to oneself. Wally deeply loved his family and treasured the love he received in return. A truly remarkable man, he will be deeply missed.
Born in Mosinee, Wisconsin, Walter was welcomed to the world by his parents, Stanley and Anna (Sawacki) Baran, on January 6, 1919. His parents were both Polish immigrants who met after coming to America. Wally’s father worked at Vilter Manufacturing while his mother was a homemaker. Wally was the fifth of seven children in his family and was raised on the south side of Milwaukee. The Great Depression of the 1930s was a trying time for countless American families and the Baran family was no different. These financially difficult days shaped Wally’s attitude toward frugality that remained with him through the years. He graduated from Boys Technical High School and later completed coursework at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) in drafting and design, receiving a two year degree.
After completing high school, Wally enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he rose to the rank of staff sergeant before he was discharged in 1941. After returning home, Wally married his longtime sweetheart, Margaret Mayer, whom he was classmates with in grade school. They exchanged their vows in 1941, and both Margaret and their infant daughter died in childbirth on October 16, 1942.
On December 8, 1941, our nation entered WWII and Wally was drafted back into the military after Margaret’s death. Following training in Missouri, Wally was stationed at Westover Field in Springfield, Massachusetts where he met a young woman named Nellie Wiater at a USO social. It wasn’t long before they had fallen deeply in love and with plans to marry, Nellie moved to Milwaukee in September of 1943. Wally received his orders to report to Nebraska, so he and Nellie married on October 25, 1943. Wally’s new bride came with him to Nebraska but once he was shipped overseas, she moved back to Milwaukee where she moved in with Wally’s mother.
Although Wally was trained for combat, he served in the Airborne Engineers Division and arrived in England via Scotland. Sometime after the Normandy invasion, his unit and all their equipment packed onto gliders and crossed the English Channel, landing in Normandy – no easy feat. Their unit was given the task of filling holes created by the American bombs in order to create safe landing fields. They essentially walked through Europe right behind the front lines, often spending days in water filled fox holes. He often attributed problems with his feet and ankles later in life to those times that he had cold, wet feet for days on end. They were then marshaled in Italy awaiting transport to the Pacific for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Wally was a superb card player and enjoyed bridge, poker, and cribbage. While in the service, he had a stellar hand with four queens that ended up winning him a pot equal to $27, 000 according to the measure of today’s dollar. Wally sent his winnings home and they used it for the down payment on a house on the south side of Milwaukee. It was there that they raised their three children: Mary Ann, Michele Alane, and Michael.
Wally and Nellie divorced in 1970 but gradually became friends again, especially later in life. They maintained residences right next door to each other from the early eighties until about 2004. During his later years, Wally sometimes reflected how there were no resources in place to integrate soldiers back into their lives after returning from war when he was in the military. At times their lives even seemed like brand new lives and many soldiers and their families were touched by alcoholism as a result.
In 1976, Wally met Stella Niemier at an AA meeting and they became friends. He asked her to be “his gal” in 1979. After undergoing open heart surgery in 2001, Wally moved in with Stella who was a retired nurse and could aid him in his recuperation. Shortly after his open heart surgery, Wally underwent surgery and radiation treatment for throat cancer. As time went by, he gave up the idea of moving back home and they lived together throughout the rest of Wally’s life. Not only was Stella’s care an integral part of Wally’s recovery and overall wellbeing, they also cared for Nellie together after she broke her hip and until her death in 2008.
For 44 years, Wally worked for Vilter Manufacturing Corporation. He started off as a machinist, but retired as a design engineer of commercial refrigeration systems. After he retired, his company called him back to work part-time for a few years because his expertise was greatly missed. Wally was proud to have designed the refrigeration for the Marina City Apartment Towers and Complex in Chicago.
Throughout his life’s journey, Wally filled his days with so much of what he enjoyed. Having achieved 43 years of sobriety, Wally helped many others as a committed mentor and sponsor in what he called “the program,” forming lasting friendships along the way. He was always good with his hands and could fix nearly anything. Later in life, Wally dabbled in woodworking, making cribbage boards that he often gave away to family, friends, and even a few doctors. He also taught many people to play cribbage. During the sunset of his life, Wally fixed watches and a few other things. Rummaging or “junking” as he called it was a favorite activity, especially when he got a great bargain that he then passed along to others. Reading history and material about the composition of the universe was an enjoyable activity, too, and also a way to keep his mind sharp.
With his deeply spiritual side and diverse character, Walter Baran was a joy to know. He was a patriot, a dedicated worker, and a devoted family man who never stopped loving those in his life. Wally’s memory will be forever cherished by those he leaves behind.
Walter Baran died on January 27, 2011. Wally’s family includes his life partner, Stella Niemier; his children, Mary Ann (Jim) Coughlin, Michele (George “Skip”) Wittler, and Mike (Lisa Fohey); grandchildren, Megan, Matthew, and Joe Coughlin, and Meredith Wittler; siblings, Ann Werner, Al Baran, Stan Baran, Helen Werner, and Jessie Gardner. Wally was preceded in death by his first wife, Margaret with infant daughter; former wife, Nellie; and many other close friends. Family and friends will gather at the Funeral Home Sunday, Jan. 30, from 3 p.m. until time of the Memorial Service at 4 p.m. Private interment with military funeral honors will be held at a later date. Please visit www.lifestorynet.com where you can leave a memory.