'An officer and a gentleman'

A WWII vet, Doarnberger helped raise eight children in huge Virginia Avenue house

A WWII vet, Doarnberger helped raise eight children in huge Virginia Avenue house

January 15, 2006|By MARLO BARNHART

When Pete Callas thinks of his lifelong friend John A. Doarnberger, the words 'quiet' and 'loyal' spring to mind.

As boys, they played together in the East End Hagerstown neighborhood that included the area around Cleveland Avenue and Liberty Street. As adults, they both served their country during World War II and continued their support through the American Legion Post in Funkstown.

"John was a veteran's veteran," Pete said as he reflected on his friend, who died Jan. 1 at the age of 86.

Family members who gathered to remember John also used the words quiet, loyal and loving to describe the man who fathered five children in his first marriage and found room in his heart for three more who were brought into his life by his second wife.


"We were truly like 'Eight is Enough,' the television show," said Virginia Doarnberger, who married John 35 years ago. They had no children together.

Virginia met John when she went to work at Maryland National Bank in 1967. Both were married to other people then.

John's first wife, Doris, died in 1968, leaving John and their five children. In late 1969, Virginia said she and John began to have feelings for each other.

"I left town twice, but John came and got me," Virginia said. After she and her first husband divorced, Virginia married John in June 1970.

For the next two years, Virginia stopped working so she could work at blending her new family. At that time, the eight children ranged in age from 4 to 27. The family lived in a large stone house at 416 Virginia Ave. complete with a wraparound porch, huge backyard and bedrooms all the way up to the attic.

"Most of the kids were still home," Virginia said. "I was young and John was patient, so it worked. We had lots and lots of fun."

At first, not all of the eight children lived with Virginia and John. At the Jan. 5 memorial service, Beth Miller-Zuber spoke of how she first came to live with her mother and John in 1973 when she was a teenager.

She remembered asking him if she could come to live with them.

"Without hesitation, he said yes," Beth said as she mapped the beginnings of her life with John. "I had never experienced such caring, and it was a time in my life that I needed caring."

Gretchen Starliper said she always will remember the picnics in the family's backyard.

"I had a recipe for pea salad that everyone liked that also included lettuce and water chestnuts," Gretchen said. One time, she made her famous salad and the meal was almost over when younger brother Phillip Miller pointed out that the salad seemed to be missing something - namely, the peas.

"The house on Virginia Avenue was a great party house," Virginia said. "We had wonderful Christmases there and two weddings."

Virginia and her son Phillip remembered that the kitchen on Virginia Avenue was especially huge.

"Once, we were delivering puppies on the kitchen table at the same time Gretchen was making chicken potpie," Virginia said. "But we had lots of room for both."

The Doarnbergers stayed on Virginia Avenue until 1982, when they opted for a smaller, two-bedroom house. They later relocated to Woodlands Run, and then three years ago, they moved into the current house on Buttercup Drive.

"John and I loved to dance," Virginia said. And they enjoyed going places together and with friends. Recently, they took bus trips to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., and then to Atlantic City less than a month before John died.

The trip to the memorial was special for John, since he was actively involved in that war, having served with the Army in the South Pacific during World War II.

"He earned the combat infantry badge, the Bronze and Silver stars and a Purple Heart," Virginia said. But with all of his honors, she said, he was very quiet about them all.

Through the years, John served the needs of veterans in his 42 years of devotion to Dixon Troxell American Legion Post 211 in Funkstown. He also served many years in the Rotary and was a Red Cross volunteer.

A huge stack of cards from friends and colleagues on the coffee table in the Doarnberger home echoed the family's feelings about John and his quiet strength. Never was a mean word heard from the man, the cards noted.

"He was truly an officer and a gentleman," Virginia said.

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