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Every name on 'Wall' a painful reminder of life, love lost

Pointing to the name of her first love, Richard Ned Lillis, is Dianne (Altstadt) Szarke. Killed in action in Vietnam, his name appears on the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, which was in New York Mills Sept. 10-13. Dianne was engaged to Lillis in 1966--about nine months before he stepped on a landmine near Quang Nam, South Vietnam, Dec. 29, 1966.

NEW YORK MILLS -- Vietnam was beginning to heat up in 1966.

When 18-year-old Dianne Altstadt came home to Perham, a solemn-faced priest, was waiting for her.

She knew her fiance was dead.

For nine months in 1966, Dianne was engaged to a soldier.

The young U.S. Marine from Richville popped the question before he departed for his second tour of duty.

"He was very good looking, brown curly hair," smiled Dianne (Altstadt) Szarke, fondly remembering a romance that abruptly ended more than four decades ago. "It was love at first sight."

Near the very center of the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, Dianne kneeled down--with a red rose in her hand--and found the name:

Richard Ned Lillis

On Dec. 29, 1966, PFC Lillis stepped on a landmine and was killed.

A 1965 graduate of Perham High School and Dent area native, Dianne was living in the Twin Cities in 1966. Her good friend JoAnne Waldorf was engaged to Lillis's brother, Eddie; and that's how Richard and Dianne met. It wasn't long before two girl friends were engaged to two brothers--both of them Marines. Older brother Eddie actually signed for Richard, because he was only 17 when he enlisted--and an adult signature was required.

"They didn't want to tell me when I was in Minneapolis," recalled Dianne of the day she learned that her fiancé was one of the nearly 60,000 who eventually perished in Vietnam. "I was coming home for a wedding dance in Perham, it was a Friday night. We stopped at Joe Waldorf's gas station."

"When I went in, the priest (Father Bill Wey, from Dent's Sacred Heart Church), and members of my family were waiting....I knew right away what had happened."

It was the Easter holiday, 1966. Richard and Dianne were engaged. The couple attended Holy Thursday services at Dianne's hometown church, in Dent. True love it was, because Richard didn't put up a fuss--though "he wasn't even Catholic," smiled Dianne.

Prophetically, Richard confided with friends about the situation in Vietnam. He evidently told several that he feared he "was never coming back."

He didn't say anything about that to Dianne, but she later learned of his grim prediction.

It was relatively early in the Vietnam conflict. So, for many in Perham and East Otter Tail County, the death of Richard Lillis was perhaps the moment that the war in Southeast Asia really hit home.

It was a tragic awakening and the end of innocence for girls Dianne's age.

"I was a few years younger than Diane, and still in high school. I remember when she lost her fiancé. It was so sad," recalled Diane (Schwandt) Bruhn, Vergas area, who also visited "The Wall" on Sept. 12.

The carefree days at Perham High School were over for Diane Schwandt and other teens. Here was a girl about their age; engaged to be married; her fiancé shipped home in a body bag.

"Things like this happened in the news. It didn't happen to people we knew," said Diane Bruhn. "It was devastating."

Dianne Szarke still has the diamond Richard gave her 44 years ago. She also has a diamond given to her by Mike Rohde, who she met within a year after Richard was killed. Mike died in 2000, and Dianne was alone again after 32 years of marriage. Both diamonds are embedded in a custom-designed ring Dianne wears. There is a third gem, too. It is from Jim Szarke, a retired Perham teacher who she married in 2003.

Hundreds of people visited the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall when it was in New York Mills Sept. 10-13. They scanned The Wall for names of long lost friends, family members and loved ones.

Names like William John Moltzan, a Dent soldier.

From Menahga, Larry Charles Koski.

From Wadena, John Clyde Silver and Max Alvin Nelson.

From Pelican Rapids, William Eugene Carlson and Marcus Sherwin Stoen.

Michael August Beringer, a Marine from Bluffton.

From Battle Lake, Ronald Dean Fogard.

Fate shined on the boys from the immediate Perham and New York Mills areas--not a single name from those communities appears on "The Wall."

But from Richville; the little town south of Perham with a population less than 100; there is one name.

You won't find that name printed in a mid-1960's Perham High School yearbook. He dropped out. Never graduated.

There's an old wartime saying: "there are no atheists in a foxhole." Well, when the bombs drop, the bullets fly and the landmines explode--there are no high school or college graduates, either. Just frightened young soldiers, a long way from home.

There is hardly a historic trace of Richard Ned Lillis in Perham school or Otter Tail County records. But his name will live on with 58,253 others, eternally etched into "The Wall."