A World War II veteran, baseball aficionado and epic storyteller with plenty of material from his 92 years, Cedar Rapids-native Albert “Barney” Hanson is “gifted” in the area of random acts of kindness.
Anyone who visits him would know.
“If you stop by Barney’s house, you know that you better show up empty-handed because you’ll be leaving with a load of things that he insisted on getting/giving you,” his grandson Zach Stewart wrote in an online tribute about the man he describes as a collector of trinkets, connoisseur of Black Velvet Whiskey and lifelong Chicago Cubs fan.
He’s a frequent flier at thrift stores — buying clocks to repair and hundreds of baseball gloves to donate to kids across Iowa and the world. Hearing tales from World War II — where he witnessed firsthand the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay — or from his time on the baseball diamond told “like a historian, a comedian, a conspiracy theorist, and a bar tender” is gift enough.
“He’s got some of the best knee-slappers I’ve ever heard,” Stewart said. “And stuff that will be shared for eternity — ‘Barney’s Greatest Hits’ if you will.”
With the recent widower — who still lives in the Cedar Rapids home where his beloved wife was raised — coming up on his 93rd birthday, his kids and grandkids want to replicate their patriarch’s prowess for random kindness.
“My grandpa has spent his lifetime doing things for others, for his country, and for his family and this year we want him to feel the love, and all that’s good in this world, by filling his mailbox,” Stewart wrote in his call for cards and other forms of mailed well-wishes for Hanson’s 93rd birthday on Feb. 25.
“Life is too short to not try and make a positive impact on someone’s life, each and every day.”
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Hanson’s daughter, Amy Stewart, said the “Blitz Barney’s Mailbox” campaign already is finding success — with Hansen reporting dozens of cards, topping 100, have poured in. The avid Hawkeye fan boasted of one he received since his family started spreading the word across social media and to media outlets.
“I opened one from the UI wrestling coach — Tom Brands,” Hanson told The Gazette. “He wished me a lot of luck and thanks for serving and stuff like that.”
One of 10 children — including four who served in the military — Hanson was so young when he joined the Navy at age 17 in 1944 that he needed his mom’s signature to enlist.
“I was putting on my coat and hat and lighting a cigar when they said, ‘How many years do you want to sign up for?’” Hanson said. “I said, ‘20.’ And he said, ‘Hold it. Don’t sign him up for 20 years.’”
Instead, they put him down for the duration of the war — which he lasted, serving as a 3rd class machinist’s mate on the battleship USS Mississippi. He experienced nearly every battle in the Pacific Theater — including one where his ship took a nearly-fatal blow from a kamikaze attack.
“For two weeks, 24 hours a day, we fired on Okinawa,” Hanson recalled. “They hid in caves, but we finally got them.”
He was honorably discharged on March 7, 1946, and returned to Cedar Rapids, where he worked at Universal Engineering and attended Cedar Rapids Business College. He landed a job as a traveling magazine salesman before attending umpire school in Florida in 1949.
That same year he played for the Odessa Texas Oilers before returning to Iowa.
“He has a really interesting story about selling magazines to Ted Williams,” his daughter Stewart said of the legendary Boston Red Sox baller.
He married his Cedar Rapids bride in 1955, and together they raised five kids.
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“He worked two jobs just to provide a Catholic education for us,” she said. “And all of us did the college thing.”
He recently lost his wife after 62 years of marriage and has outlived many friends and family members — including all of his siblings.
“The house is much quieter these days, but he stays active, has a positive attitude, and maintains an unflappable sense of humor,” Stewart said.
The cards and greetings, though, will keep him entertained and feed his collectors’ fix.
“If you were to chat with Dad in person, you would get a much better understanding of what it means to be a member of our country’s ‘greatest generation,’” Stewart said.
To get a card to Barney, send it to:
C/O Greg Stewart
P.O. Box 8606
Cedar Rapids, IA 52408-8606
l Comments: (319) 339-3158; email@example.com