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Dick Telander, Peoria businessman, WWII pilot, dies at 92

Dick Telander sRick Dick Telander's 90th birthday.

Dick Telander and son Rick at Dick Telander's 90th birthday.

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Updated: September 29, 2013 6:33AM



As a boy, Dick Telander loved riding around in his little toy car, outfitted with wings, a nose and a propeller.

As a young man, he became a World War II flyboy. “He absolutely loved being up in the sky,” said his son, Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander.

With skill and steady nerves, Mr. Telander flew his B-25 bomber to Europe via a long and dangerous route that wound through South America. He and fellow U.S. pilots found their way across rainforests and rough terrain by following what he called “Iron Rivers”—the railroads.

He continued his flight to a tiny speck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, midway between South America and Africa. “If you didn’t have enough fuel or missed Ascension Island, that was the last anybody’d ever see of you,” his son said.

“Basically, it was sea and sky,” said his daughter, Marcie Telander.

After refueling, Mr. Telander continued on to North Africa and Italy, where he bombed munitions and manufacturing plants in Northern Italy.

They did what they had to do to get to their target, Marcie Telander said. “If it meant flying under a bridge or between trees or over a castle, that’s what you had to do.”

Mr. Telander died Aug. 24 at a hospice in Dallas at 92.

He flew more than 32 missions, and his flyboy jacket may even have helped him land the girl of his dreams.

When he came home from the war to resume his studies at the University of Illinois, he was considered a real catch. Not only was there a shortage of men on campus, but he looked exceptionally dashing when he wore his uniform to a Phi Kappa Psi dance—so much so, that older co-eds warned off the younger women with a curt: “ ‘You stay away from Dick Telander.’”

It didn’t matter, once he laid eyes on a freshman named Jeanne Overstolz. “He took one look at her and saw that one of the guys from the other fraternity was with her,” said Marcie Telander. “He just walked on over and asked her to dance, and whirled her away.”

“And that was it.”

They were married within six months. He and his “JeJe” raised their family in Peoria in an atmosphere of security and love, laced with an appreciation for literature, laughter and a sense of the ridiculous. She called him “Sweetie,” which became his de facto middle name.

Mr. Telander was typical of the Greatest Generation — he didn’t brag about his accomplishments, or seem to brood about the horrors of war. “I never heard my father pass the buck on responsibility,” said Marcie Telander. “I never heard him blame anyone. I believe that’s one of the great qualities of his generation, that willingness to acquire and accept responsibility without talking about it.”

He was born in Chicago and grew up in La Grange, where he attended Lyons Township High School. At 16, he bought a Model T for $50, becoming a Ford man for life. He appreciated the car company’s classic designs, later purchasing chariots such as the Thunderbird and Mustang.

In 1943, World War II interrupted his college education. His flight training included stints in the Texas towns of Ballinger, San Angelo and Lubbock. After that, he always had a soft spot for the Lone Star State. He and his wife made their last home in the hill country near Kerrville, Texas.

While flying in Italy, he received escorts from the Tuskegee Airmen, also known as the Red Tails. The pioneering pilots proved their virtuosity and bravery at a time when many in their own country didn’t think African-Americans were capable of flying.

“He loved those guys,” his son said. “He said they were terrific, and they had a whole different way of talking on the radio. . . It was a jazzy way of talking.”

Thanks to the Red Tails, “They felt incredibly well-protected.”

He also admired the Women Airforce Service Pilots. “He said the women pilots were tremendous,” his daughter said. “They relayed equipment and planes.”

Though he was bombing targets in Northern Italy — near Austria — he came to love the beauty of the Italian countryside and the warmth of the people, his children said. Mussolini had already been ousted, and the Italians were tired of the war.

After returning home, he started Coleman Oil with his father-in-law, Norbert Overstolz, and his brother-in-law, Jerry Hurst. In the postwar boom years, the business began to flourish, supplying oil to Peoria-area industrial giants such as Caterpillar, John Deere, and Laidlaw Steel.

The Telanders took their kids on vacations to the Badlands and to Jekyll Island, Georgia, where they ran free on beaches, and saw alligators and turtles.

They owned a series of dogs, including a female Great Dane, Smedley Sue. She was so big, the kids could make a tent by putting a blanket on her back and playing underneath her.

At night, Mr. Telander sang Rick, Marcie and another daughter, Kim, to sleep, with “Goodnight, Ladies” and “Merrily We Roll Along.”

He probably could have expanded the company, but he wanted to be home with his children in the evening, when he constructed a play fort in what seemed, to them, a magical process.

“When he came home from work, he built us a clubhouse, but it would be by lanternlight; following him, by lanternlight, to our secret, secret path; our secret, secret fort,” Marcie Telander said.

Mr. Telander enjoyed skiing in Colorado, and golfing. A dapper dresser, his weight never fluctuated, and he was able to wear the same cashmere sweaters and Harris Tweed jackets he sported as a young man.

He loved hamburgers and milkshakes, jazz and Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls.” He never tired of the TV classic, “The Honeymooners,” or the “Pink Panther” films. He could quote dialogue from “Dirty Harry.”

Mr. Telander had completed a crossword puzzle just the day before he died.

In addition to his wife and three children, Mr. Telander is also survived by four grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Services will be private, but his family has some fitting plans for the former flyboy. A friend in Michigan owns a cannon. Mr. Telander, who is being cremated, said he wanted some of his ashes to be shot out of the cannon.

“We talked about it,’’ his son said, “and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s great! I want to be shot from a cannon.’ ”

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

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