The dawn of 2016 was sly in its approach this year. It was only after the golden ball of Times Square had completed its descent that I realized I had not given a single thought to my New Year’s resolution. I made my way through the list of possibilities I had seen floating around the Internet, but none seemed real enough to deserve my commitment. Eventually I let the idea slip from my mind, until I heard what my friend Norvel Jacobs had to say about it. As I sat in his small apartment that was still alive with Christmas, I listened intently to Norvel’s story of perseverance, war, and love. His resolution was simple. “I would like to have a big smile and love everybody,” he told me with sparkling eyes. Norvel’s joy has taught me that loss and sacrifice are in fact the reasons that life is worth the fight.
Norvel Leonard Jacobs was born on January, 24, 1924 in Lincoln, Nebraska. His family’s understanding of the meaning of hard work is what got them through the Great Depression, but Norvel’s childhood was filled with poverty nonetheless. The idea of going to college never crossed his mind, but one of his high school instructors saw too much potential in Norvel to let it go to waste. Norvel told the man he wasn’t afraid of hard work, so he was given a custodial job at the school. He never felt sorry for himself, and his humility and drive earned him a degree in accounting four years later.
Though he was thankful for an occupation to support his family, accounting had not exactly been his idea of a dream job. “I had always wanted to be a minister,” he told me. He laughed as he recalled the irony of his ambition; “I was the world’s worst in high school, but I had fun,” he said with a wink. Unfortunately, Norvel wasn’t able to pursue life as a minister because he was called to serve in the Second World War. He was twenty-one years old at the time, and he remembers feeling excited to be part of something so honorable. That excitement quickly transformed to dread when he witnessed the destruction of a nearby ship while crossing the ocean. “That was the first time I felt scared,” he admitted. “I thought to myself, ‘This is for real.’”
Through teary eyes, Norvel recalled other jarring sights he witnessed as a young soldier. He described the way the German soldiers trapped American paratroopers by raising wooden poles to entangle them as they landed, and then “mowed them down” with their machine guns. A lump formed in my throat as Norvel recalled when he and his men encountered an emaciated Polish man who led the soldiers to a barn full of other starved Jews. “You can’t imagine the people,” Norvel told me. “They were just skin and bones, and for a long time I was seeing that.” The soldiers gathered able-bodied German men from a nearby town to lay the Jews side by side in one long grave. “There were hundreds of them,” Norvel remembered. “Anytime somebody says it didn’t happen, I’ll guarantee it happened.”
Though it was difficult for Norvel to recall these disturbing events from his past, he also told me of the more hopeful instances when he felt the comforting hand of God. One occasion was when Norvel broke down after watching his friend suffer in a state of battle fatigue. Norvel saw a white cloud above him and heard the words, “Do not be afraid. I am with you always.” Norvel told me, “That was when I knew that God was real, and He has never left me since.” Norvel’s faith strengthened his comrades. When he and a dozen other men scrambled into a silo to flee enemy fire, one of Norvel’s buddies said, “Norv, will you teach us how to pray?” After that, Norvel was asked to assist the chaplain for about 4 weeks. In a way, his dream of becoming a minister came true after all.
There was another reason Norvel was able to hold himself together during his three-year deployment. In the short weeks before he shipped out, Norvel fell in love with a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl named Jean. He remembers sitting at a drive-in movie with Jean when they began their tradition of saying “I. Love. You.” while squeezing each other’s hands for each word. The young couple sent letters to each other for three years, and they were married three months and two weeks after Norvel finally returned home for good. Norvel laughed as he recalled eating “yum yum’s” with Jean an hour before they were to be married. “People said it wasn’t going to last. They said we were too young,” Norvel told me. “It lasted 70 years.”
Jean passed away on December 17, 2015, only a few weeks after she and Norvel celebrated their 70th anniversary together, but Norvel knows she is smiling down on him from Heaven. “Jean was my Jean,” he told me through gentle tears. Norvel said that only a few days before she passed, she held his hand and said to him, “Isn’t it something how God brought us together to know each other? We were meant to be together.” The last bit of Jean’s life had been hard on the couple because of Jean’s dementia, but Norvel never faltered in his patient and joyful love for his wife. I had the privilege of meeting Jean before she passed away, and as Norvel went to retrieve her wheelchair she said to me, “I may scold him every now and then, but I love him. He is a very special person.” Today, the decorated veteran of five battle stars is the most joyful man I have ever met. Even after having lost so much, Norvel Jacob’s New Year’s resolution is evidence enough that life is worth the fight.