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New friend has surprising old statue

Curiosity killed the cat, or at least that’s what old-timers claim.
Curiosity made me drive to Atlanta, and a month later, I’m still shaking my head.
The commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service is a good reason to navigate maddening traffic and scavenge for a parking spot near the state Capitol. Gen. Pete Wheeler, 89, still suits up and goes to his office in the east tower of the Floyd Veterans Memorial Building, across from the Capitol.
His 62 years of non-stop service have lifted him above icon status. He is a legend. A plaza honors him. Earlier that day, I’d been with former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn. When he heard I was going to see the commissioner, he said, “I love Pete Wheeler. Please tell him that he’s the best. Give him my regards.”
“Love” and “respect;” two powerful words from one of our nation’s most powerful and revered leaders. And it didn’t take but a few minutes, after stepping into Pete Wheeler’s world, to understand how and why the senator feels that way.
Inside the office of the Department of Veterans Service, I could feel an aura of honor to the men and women who offered their lives in exchange for our freedom. History oozes from its walls.
Georgia has the nation’s largest number of military retirees and its fourth largest active-duty population. The commissioner runs a robust operation, scattered across the state. And he’s been doing it since 1948, when Gov. Herman Talmadge appointed him.
Once, I addressed him as “commissioner,” and then as “general.” He waved his cane and insisted, “Just call me Pete.”
Pete was born in 1922, the same year as my father, and he’s now served 12 governors. He’s one tough and remarkable soldier.
A visit with Pete is a stroll through a museum. You wanted everything recorded -- like his witnessing Georgia’s youngest governor, Richard B. Russell, being sworn into office in 1930. Pete rewound the time machine to when he was just 8 years old and watching history being made, across the street from where he works today. As he talked, behind him was a flag that Georgians had carried in the Spanish-American War.
With a tap of his cane, he pointed out one relic after another. And then he stopped, smiled, and said, “Are you ready?”
Eleven men nodded, “Yes.”
Our cats hadn’t died, yet, but curiosity was working in overdrive.
Single-file we marched, wending our way through a labyrinth of veteran’s records and memorabilia.
“Here we are,” Pete said, “the Hall of Disrespect.” Again, with his cane, the general tapped on the door of a nondescript, two-door metal storage cabinet. When the doors swung open, there it was, on the bottom shelf, under a Rich’s shopping bag -- Adolf Hitler’s 150-pound bronze head.
What? How?
Here’s Pete’s story: When Allied troops captured Berlin in World War II, American soldiers toppled Adolf Hitler’s giant bronze statue. A Georgia GI hacksawed off the murderous dictator’s head. Somehow, the macabre souvenir got through customs and into the hands of Georgia’s former secretary of state, Ben Fortson. Fortson handed it off to the commissioner of veterans service.
Because it’s an eerie reminder of one of our planet’s darkest moments, Pete thought the best thing to do was stuff the head in a dusty chamber of disrespect. And there it’s been for decades.
Incredible.
Curiosity may have killed the cat. But for me, curiosity keeps me alive -- finding new friends, like Pete Wheeler, who open doors filled with surprises.

Dink NeSmith is president of Community Newspapers Inc. in Athens and represents the 10th Congressional District on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Send e-mail to dnesmith@cninewspapers.com. This column was printed in the Athens Banner-Herald.