WWII vet honored in Holmes play
When Patrick Dewane was growing up in Wisconsin, he always knew that his grandfather was a World War II veteran, and that he had been a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
But whenever he would ask his grandfather about that time in his life, Dewane was met with silence.
“I would see his war souvenirs and his medals around his house, but he wasn’t talking,” Dewane said.
When his grandfather, Matt Konop died in 1983, “I figured we buried his story with him,” Dewane added.
“But then, 20 years after his death, my sister found his unpublished memoirs in a box in my aunt’s basement. She made copies of what she found and handed them out at Christmas, as presents.”
As it turned out, Konop’s story was such an extraordinary tale of “jaw dropping coincidences” and unsung heroism that “I became obsessed with it,” Dewane said. “Out of that obsession came this show, ‘The Accidental Hero.’”
Mixing dramatic presentation with old photos and rare World War II film footage shot with a home movie camera, Dewane created a one-man show that caught the eye of Historic Holmes Theatre director Amy Stoller Stearns.
“The first time I saw the show it just deeply touched me,” Stearns said. “I’m fascinated by people who have immigrated to the U.S. and I’m grateful for all sacrifices of those who fought in wars for our country.
“This story combines both, plus it’s a true story, which I think makes it more powerful. Patrick created a beautiful, poignant piece about his grandfather’s WW II experience. We had it here (at the Holmes Theatre) a few years ago, somewhat spontaneously, and I believe it deserves a larger audience.”
So Stearns set about booking “The Accidental Hero” for a second, one-night engagement at the Holmes Theatre, which is set to take place on Thursday, April 11 at 7:30 p.m.
“Amy Stoller Stearns was an early supporter of my show and has been a consistent supporter since then,” Dewane said. “The Holmes Theatre and its support of individual artists, and Minnesota artists in particular, has been very important to my ability to share this story with the world.
“That’s why I’m really looking forward to coming back to Detroit Lakes to perform in that wonderful facility, and to see my friends there again.”
“I hope people of all ages attend, because this is a powerful piece of history, told in a wonderful way through the use of theater,” Stearns added.
Underwritten by Bell State Bank & Trust, tickets for the show are $10 for adults, $5 for students, and can be purchased at the theater box office, 806 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes; online at www.dlccc.org; or by phone at 218-844-7469.
Matt Konop’s story
“My grandfather’s story is a real life version of the hero’s journey,” said Dewane. “He was sort of a cross between Luke Skywalker (hero of ‘Star Wars’) and General George Patton.”
Matt Konop grew up on a family farm outside a small town in rural Wisconsin. “He grew up speaking Czech as his first language,” Dewane said.
The people in the community tended to view the Czech immigrants as “the lowest on the totem pole,” he continued. “They were made fun of and looked down on by the Irish, the Germans and all the other immigrants at that time.“So my grandfather grew up thinking his background was inferior and that to become a true American he needed to grow beyond his Czech roots.
“Now here’s the Luke Skywalker part: He finds himself in World War II and figures he’s there to fight the ‘evil empire,’ Nazi Germany, only to come upon, during the last week of the war, this revelation of his own identity.
“Through a series of coincidences, and because he speaks Czech, he’s given the assignment to be commander of an advance party — the first group of soldiers to go into southern Czechoslovakia, about 200 miles behind enemy territory.”
Fearful that he would find Czechslovakia to be “a dump of a country, because that’s what the other kids told him growing up,” Konop somehow found himself walking through the streets of his mother’s family’s hometown.
“He stumbles upon a secret meeting of the local resistance, who for six years have been plotting, at great risk, to overthrow the Nazis,” Dewane said. “They’ve never seen an American before. He just walks into the meeting and addresses them in their language, telling them he’s Czech and he’s there to liberate their country. They go crazy, jumping up to hug and kiss him.”
As it happened, the war was drawing to a close, so it wasn’t long before Konop found himself receiving a hero’s welcome back by the natives of the hometown of his ancestors.
“One coincidence after another continues to happen along this magical path he’s on, which culminates in him being greeted with homemade banners, written in Czech, with his name on them, saying ‘We are liberated by one of our own.’
“They paraded him around town on their shoulders as their liberator, walking the same cobblestones where his own grandfather had begun his journey to America 80 years earlier. That experience turned his whole notion of himself inside out. His greatest shame — being born Czech — became his greatest source of pride.”
Unfortunately, Konop’s story was buried for many years by the Czechs’ Communist conquerors.
“The Communists took power in Czechoslovakia, and it became illegal to tell his (Konop’s) story there, because the Russians said it was the Russian army alone that liberated Czechoslovakia (from the Nazis), and the Americans had nothing to do with it.”
After returning home, “He didn’t talk about the war, as was common at the time, so no one knew about his story,” Dewane said. “I never knew his story growing up, but in my heart I always believed my grandfather had done something amazing in the war. Little did I know how true that was.”
Coming full circle
This coming May, Dewane will be presenting “The Accidental Hero” in the Czech Republic, at the George Patton Museum, which is located in the town of Pilsen — where the end of World War II was officially announced on May 8, 1945.
“The day of the Czechs’ liberation in World War II was their Fourth of July, their Independence Day,” Dewane said. “I will be presenting my grandfather’s story in Pilsen as part of their liberation day celebration.
“His (Konop’s) picture is in the museum where I will be doing my show,” he continued.
The first time he did one of his shows in Czechoslovakia, Dewane added, “I met people there who knew my grandfather, and were friends with him. One woman gave me a stack of letters he had sent to them in the 1970s.”
He has also presented “The Accidental Hero” at venues throughout Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, New York, Texas and Indiana, to name a few.
“I will be doing a show in Washington, D.C., this summer,” Dewane added.
“My favorite part of the shows is when people come up to me afterwards and tell me their stories,” he continued.
“I hear amazing stories about their relatives’ experiences in World War II, stories from Vietnam veterans, all sorts of things. This show opens up a channel for people to speak about things that most of the time just go unsaid — just as I’ve discovered my grandfather’s story, I get to hear all of these other wonderful stories wherever I go.”
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.