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Orlyn C. Oestereich

January 22, 2011|By JANET HEIM | janeth@herald-mail.com
  • Orlyn and Connie Oestereich were headed to a ball in Frederick, Md., when they decided to have this photograph taken.
Submitted photo

Orlyn Oestereich lived the last 21 years of his life in Washington County and was well connected through his involvement in the American Legion. His wife Connie, said few people knew him by his first name, though.

Instead, he was known as "The Colonel," a title of both endearment and respect.

"I'm still having a difficult time. I depended on him for so much," Connie said.

She and Orlyn met at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. Orlyn, who was serving as executive officer of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at the time, was her boss from 1967 to 1969, Connie said.

He was transferred from Fort Detrick and became hospital administrator at what is now known as Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany before his final post as commander of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

He retired in 1984, after more than 37 years of military service in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps.

Orlyn's first wife, Helene, died of a brain tumor in 1987. Orlyn was living in Wheaton, Md., and Connie was still working at Fort Detrick when she ran into a former colleague who told her about Helene's death.

Connie called Orlyn to extend her sympathy, and six months later, Orlyn invited her to dinner.

Connie and Orlyn dated for about two years, before getting married in 1990. Orlyn and his first wife, Helene, had a daughter and son. Connie has four sons. There are six grandchildren.

Connie was living in Funkstown at the time and they found a piece of property in the Boonsboro area on which they built a house.

One of the first projects was installing a large flag pole in the yard so The Colonel could fly the American flag daily.

"He really enjoyed retirement up here," Connie said.

"Can we call it 'futzing?'" asked neighbor Jim Rohrer, referring to The Colonel's own terminology for his retirement.

The Oestereichs lived next door to Jim and Kelly Rohrer and, despite more than 35 years difference in ages, became good friends.

"Orlyn couldn't have survived the last few years without these two," Connie said.

The men shared an interest in woodworking and working outdoors.

"He taught me a lot just watching him ... there was the right way and his way. You did it his way," Jim said with a laugh.

Kelly and The Colonel tended to the flowers and gardening in their yards and he would seek advice from her.

"I thought of him as a father figure. That orneriness came out," said Kelly, whose father died when she was 24.

They had keys to each other's homes, which allowed them to dog sit as easily as helping themselves to sugar or eggs as needed.  

Orlyn was the second-youngest of 11 children and grew up with little, Connie said. The military provided educational and job opportunities for a better life.

"His family was very proud of him, coming out of a poor, poor, poor childhood," said Connie, who noted that he earned a master's degree in hospital administration from Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"That's why he appreciated it. It got him on the right road ... The man loved his country and his flag," said Jim, who received two thumbs up from The Colonel when Jim provided a flag for Orlyn's hospital room.

Orlyn served in Germany during World War II and in the 1970s, had a battlefield commission during the Korean War, earned a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam and was stationed in Japan in the 1950s. His discharge papers listed an extensive list of medals, badges and citations.

He was  involved with a Masonic Lodge in Silver Spring, Md., for more than 50 years, becoming a 32nd Degree Mason. After retirement, he volunteered at Paramount Elementary School, where one of his granddaughters was enrolled, and was active in the Clopper-Michael American Legion Post 10 in Boonsboro and the Republican Club of Washington County.

Bob Everhart, chairman of the Board of License Commissioners for Washington County, became friends with The Colonel about eight years ago, through their American Legion involvement.

"He was a person of interest, easy to talk to, very knowledgeable with a good sense of humor. Something clicked for he and I. He was a gentleman's gentleman," Bob said.

Dave Ambrose worked with Orlyn at The American Legion in Boonsboro and knew him from his "trek from the bottom to the top" as commander for the American Legion Department of Maryland. He described him as "a dedicated Legionnaire and dedicated military person."

Dave said The Colonel was the oldest person to date to hold that position, an honor he held from July 2009 to July 2010. Orlyn traveled around the state in a van lettered in gold with the title, which often warranted honking and waving in support of his work, Connie said.

"It was quite an accomplishment for an old guy. He loved it. He lived for it," Dave said of The Colonel's role as Maryland's state commander.

Jim said Orlyn was "proud as a peacock" as he rode in last year's Sharpsburg Memorial Day parade, representing the state's American Legion.

The Colonel's home office walls are decorated with memorabilia from a career that spanned almost four decades, including photographs taken with Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.

A letter arrived in the mail last week for Connie from U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who recognized The Colonel's accomplishments as a "decorated war veteran, career military administrator, prosthetic researcher and veterans' advocate."

She added that "Colonel Oestereich set high standards for performance in both his professional and his personal life and inspired others to conform to his expectations."

The Colonel began having breathing problems about six months before his death, a result of scar tissue on his lungs, Connie said. He was hospitalized Dec. 10 and Connie said they both looked forward to his return home.

But that was not to be.

The Colonel was unable to speak because of a breathing tube, but communicated through written messages. His biggest concern was that Connie would be taken care of, Jim said.

Orlyn will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on April 18.

"He was just a good, good person. What can I say?" Connie said.

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Editor's note:  Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs "A Life Remembered." Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Orlyn C. Oestereich, who died Jan. 1, 2011, at the age of 83. His obituary was published in The Herald-Mail on Jan. 6, 2011.

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