Richard Zuehlke was unpacking a box of donated household miscellany at the Goodwill store where he works when he came across a gold-trimmed black case. Inside was a Purple Heart.
Such an honor shouldn’t just be floating around, he thought. Another pass through the box yielded a sepia-toned portrait of Pvt. James E. Roland, whose name was engraved on the medal.
Zuehlke’s bosses agreed the thrift store was no place for an honor posthumously awarded to Roland for military merit during World War II.
After a Facebook post and some dogged determination on the part of a Patriot Guard Rider who saw it, the medal will soon be back where it belongs — with Roland’s family in tiny Westover, Pa., the former mining town where he’s buried.
How it wound up at a Goodwill 200 miles away, though, remains anyone’s guess.
“It seemed like it may have been mailed to somebody,” said Buffalo-area Patriot Guard coordinator Linda Hastreiter, who began looking for Roland’s relatives after learning of the Goodwill Facebook post.
“For 69 years it’s been somewhere,” Hastreiter said.
She began searching immediately. Nearly a month later she tracked down Mary Roland Struble, a distant cousin and Westover’s mayor.
Hastreiter and other members of the military advocacy group will receive the medal from Goodwill in Buffalo on Tuesday. Riders on motorcycles will escort it from DuBois, Pa., to the cemetery on Saturday and present it to Struble at Roland’s gravesite.
“This is just totally amazing. It makes me very proud,” Struble said by phone Monday.
Hastreiter first looked for relatives in New York before using the Internet to find that he was buried in Westover. She called the half-dozen Rolands she could find in the town of 688 people, eventually connecting with the mayor.
Struble, who said her family has a long history of military service, had known about Pvt. Roland from the town’s 1990 sesquicentennial celebration. A picture of the hometown hero was on the front of the program with his biography inside. It said he died while fighting at Anzio, Italy, on May 23, 1944.
But Struble didn’t know at the time that she was related — though from his picture she’d suspected. “He’s got the Roland smile,” Struble said.
And she’d never heard mention of any medal.
When Hastreiter informed her the medal had been found, “it was a shock,” Struble said.
Struble was able to trace her relationship to James Roland through her grandfather, who she remembered speaking of a cousin who turned out to be Roland’s father.
Before enlisting in September 1943, Roland worked at Duncan Motors in Niagara Falls, N.Y., about 20 miles from the store where the Purple Heart was dropped off. But he’d never married and his parents remained in Westover, Pa. They are buried next to their son, Struble said.
Hastreiter wonders whether the military mailed the medal to Roland’s old Niagara Falls address, perhaps the last one they’d had for him. Struble’s theory is that Roland’s twin sister or another relative had lived with him in New York and had received the medal and passed it along until its last caretaker died.
“Somebody was probably cleaning out the house and just packed the stuff up to go to the Goodwill and it ended up there,” she said. “That’s the only thing we can think of.”