By Gerri Miller
Dozens of police cars, fire trucks, veteran’s groups from across the region and friends lined up for a drive-by parade Thursday in front of the Millbrook Senior Citizens’ Center. The parade was organized to honor the 97thbirthday of WWII and Korean War Veteran Dr. Donald Hayhurst.
Hayhurst sat in a place of honor under a decorated tent near the Senior Center. Dozens of veterans, law enforcement officers, friends and many others lined up after the parade to meet one of Millbrook’s heroes. Most thanked the veteran for his many years of service to his country.
There was even a limousine for Hayhurst at the beginning of the parade.
“I am rather amazed by it all,” Hayhurst said. “I want to thank everybody who came. It means so much to me.”
Hayhurst was accompanied by his pastor, Ken Stodola of Open Door Baptist Church in Prattville, his wife Jennifer Stodola and his caregiver Keshia Green.
Martha Poole Simmons of the Central-East Alabama Chapter of the American Red Cross organized the event. This is the fourth drive-by birthday event Simmons has organized since the COVID-19 crisis. She received a volunteerism award which was presented during the event.
Mayor Al Kelly and Police Chief P.K. Johnson participated in the parade and the presentation as well as other city and police officials.
Kent Davis, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs, presented a commendation to Hayhurst from Gov. Kay Ivey. Amir Farooqi of the Central Alabama Veterans Healthcare System also presented a plaque to Hayhurst.
Dr. Hayhurst landed on Omaha Beach as a member of the U.S. Army Tank Recovery Unit just 10 days after the Allies landed at Normandy. His unit would have been there sooner, but huge waves were coming in making it difficult.
Hayhurst received five battle service stars for his participation at Normandy, as well as the Battle of the Bulge and Rhineland. Hayhurst continued his service until WWII was over.
He also received the French Legion of Honor for United States Veterans for his heroic participation risking his life in the liberation of France. During his service in WWII, Hayhurst’s rank was platoon sergeant but at the end of WWII he was a 1st Lieutenant. Later Hayhurst was recalled and served in the Korean War.
Dr. Hayhurst grew up in West Virginia in the midst of the Great Depression. When he turned 18, he was drafted and served in the Army. He was sent to Europe.
After returning from the war, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburg, studying political science. Later at Auburn University he was part of creating the Department of Political Science where he also served as an instructor, with the rank of full professor.
During his time at Auburn, he put his knowledge of political science to use, serving as the Mayor for four years. During that time, Auburn secured a $600,000 federal grant for urban renewal which was used to improve the streets of downtown Auburn. You can find a marker dedicated to this event at Toomer’s Corner.
A couple of years ago while attending an event at Auburn University, he bumped into a former student, Alex Moore, with an offer he couldn’t turn down. Hayhurst was asked if he would like to return to Normandy.
The answer was quick and decisive. Hayhurst said he had thought about returning many times over the years. He said he didn’t want anyone to worry about him making the big trip, because he carried his weight the first time, and he would again.
That idea became reality in November of 2018 when Hayhurst and his former student flew to France touring the five landing sites for Allied forces during World War II. On the flights to France and back to the U.S., Don and Alex were moved to first-class seats when the flight crew discovered that Don, who was wearing his WWII hat, had served in Europe during WWII.
On the return flight, the pilot made an announcement recognizing that the flight had a WWII veteran aboard.
This return to Normandy meant much to Don who said, “It means so much to your life. You ought to have the opportunity to re-examine it. It’s like the idea of completing something in your life. You want to have a postscript or a final assessment of it.”
During a tour of the Normandy American Cemetery, Hayhurst helped the guide when questions were asked. After all, he wasn’t speaking on things he had read or learned, but what he knew to be fact. Over 9,000 people are buried in the cemetery.
Hayhurst survived his time in war, but he still remembers seeing the bodies of those who did not. The sand from Normandy Beach meant a great deal to him, and he brought some home to Alabama from his trip.
Don and his wife, Joyce, were married 17 years. She trained as a RN and served as a surgical nurse for 30 years. At Millbrook, she had a special place in her heart for the library’s youth reading program at the Millbrook Public Library. Several years ago Don visited with the Millbrook City Council and donated $5,000 in his wife’s memory.
The couple were active church members and participated in the Millbrook Senior Center activities.
Hayhurst told Simmons about all of his experiences, saying, “I’ve been so blessed and protected so many times that I’m embarrassed to complain about anything. I have been blessed more than I ever deserved. I was always a competitor. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I was doing. That’s what I tell young people today which is if you want to succeed in life, you have to compete. You have to get in there and work harder than everyone else. That’s why education is so important. It gave my wife and me the opportunity to succeed and make that hard work pay off.”