World War II veteran gets posthumous degree from St. Norbert College

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | February 13, 2019

Bill Manion’s search for his biological parents led to honor

DE PERE — Bill and Betty Manion, members of St. Mary Magdalene Parish, Waupaca, have returned to their alma mater, St. Norbert College, throughout the years, but they never expected to step on campus for a ceremony like the one celebrated on Saturday, Feb. 9, in the F.K. Bemis International Center.

St. Norbert College president Brian Bruess awarded Robert O’Malley a posthumous degree, due to efforts made by Bill.

St. Norbert College president Brian Bruess, right, presents a posthumous degree to Mike O’Malley on behalf of his father, Robert O’Malley, during a presentation at St. Norbert College Feb. 9. Among the other children in attendance were Bill Manion, left, and Jeff O’Malley, center. (Photo Courtesy of St. Norbert College)

O’Malley, a native of Lansing, Iowa, arrived at St. Norbert in the fall of 1940. He was a member of the infantry club, sang in the choir and played football for the Green Knights. During his third year of college, he was called to serve in World War II.

O’Malley, who died in 1989, was Bill’s biological father. They never met. Bill learned the identity of his biological parents in February of 2017.

“Our kids wanted to know for their kids, medically,” explained Bill, a 1973 St. Norbert graduate. “They wanted to see if there was any background information. That’s what drove it. I had a nice life. I didn’t have a burning desire to find out. I grew up in Madison. I was very lucky.”

Bill petitioned the State of Wisconsin for his adoption records, but was initially unsuccessful. A law change eventually made the information available because both of his biological parents were deceased. Robert “Bob” O’Malley and his wife, Tena, Bill’s biological mother, were married 11 months after he was born. They had seven more children — five more sons and two daughters. Tena died in 2011.

Bill sent letters to each of his newly-discovered biological siblings on the same day.

“I just said, ‘Here I am. If you want to do something with it, fine,’” he explained.

“They knew about him,” said Betty, a 1974 St. Norbert College graduate. “Before his mother died, she told each one of them; embarrassed, shameful, sad, being pregnant and unmarried during that time was difficult.”

“She told them all individually, but not collectively,” said Bill, “so they all had this little thing, ‘Hey, how did you know that?’”

All seven reached out to him. On March 10, 2017, the birth siblings met for the first time at Mike O’Malley’s home in Lake Villa, Ill.

“Everybody came in and we just stared at each other,” said Bill. “It was kind of scary. They didn’t know what they were getting and I surely didn’t know what I was getting into.”

Robert O’Malley, a World War II veteran who died in 1989, received a posthumous degree from St. Norbert College during a presentation Feb. 9. (Photo Courtesy of St. Norbert College)

“Look at the resemblance, are you kidding me,” said Betty, who retired as director of religious education at St. Mary Magdalene Parish last May after 27 years of service. “They welcomed Bill like crazy.”

Bill was very surprised to find out that his biological father had attended St. Norbert College. Two of the four Manion children are also St. Norbert alums, so the family now has three generations of history at the college. He contacted Todd Danen, director of alumni and parent relations at the college, to pitch an idea to honor all soldiers who had to leave the college for military duty.

“It started with Bob, but the idea was to do it for all the vets,” said Bill. “It’s been so noble that they would do this. It makes me so proud to be a St. Norbert grad. It’s pretty cool.”

Mike, the eldest of the O’Malley children, spoke on behalf of the family at the ceremony. He explained that his father was proud to serve.

“He was committed to do what was required as the Great Generation did,” he said. “His service was not begrudging. He was happy, in some ways, to do what was expected.”

Bob, who was involved in military infantry combat in France was captured in Northern France and taken into Germany. He escaped through Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, Egypt and Italy. He and Tena settled in McHenry, Ill. Bob worked in construction as a heavy machinery operator throughout the country.

Bob was honored as a member of the St. Norbert College Class of 1944. Danen explained that World War II left only nine seniors to graduate in 1944, including five students who were Norbertine fraters.

“Moving forward, I’m going to work on researching the other names,” said Danen.

“This was an unexpected treat, thanks to Bill and Betty,” said Mike. “There is something special in Bill Manion to come up with this idea. This little mystery we’ve got going called ‘family’ made Bill wonder who his biological parents were. We are into it now. It’s been a lovely, wonderful ride.”

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