WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- It came down to two cents, a gamble if you will, that sent a young apprentice from Troy, N.Y., to the sands of Iwo Jima some 66 years ago. George Jacques, now 87, is betting again but this time on the spirit of New York's Capital District.
But before we talk about George's gambling, his personal story is so powerful that it must be told in order to put everything into proper perspective.
George is a lovable, grandfatherly type of guy. His eyes twinkle, just like a schoolboy in love, when he talks about his love of his life, his wife, Jeannette.
As he talked about Jeannette, George lovingly pulled out a photo of himself from an old Navy records folder. There he was in his World War II Navy uniform along with an inscription to his girlfriend that began with, "To the loveliest girl on earth and my future wife..."
They have been married since 1946.
When George talked about his father - who once loaned George the family car so he could take Jeannette on a honeymoon to a distant vacation spot called Bennington, Vt. - he often paused in speech. As George tried to find the right words to say, one could see that George was reliving many fond memories of his father in his mind and his heart before he spoke. The twinkle in his eyes was still there, but with a touch of sadness.
George is a combat veteran having served as a Navy Seabee in the Pacific during World War II. After surviving the hard-fought Battles of Palau and Iwo Jima, George rushed back home and married his high school sweetheart.
For a time after the war, he worked at Rototiller Inc. in Troy, which is now called Troy-Bilt. George had gone through a draftsman training program at Rototiller prior to his enlistment.
It was at Rototiller in 1943, when George made an offhand comment to a couple of fellow workers that went along the lines of, "For two cents, I would enlist and go to war." His co-workers quickly pushed two pennies across the counter and George went down to the Navy recruiting office the next day and enlisted. So much about George's betting skills.
Nevertheless, the thought of working in a place where one could wear short-sleeve shirts during the winter was so intriguing that George eventually moved to Florida to work for Pratt & Whitney. But for a Northern boy, it was too darn hot there and so, back to New York and a short stint at the General Electric plant in Schenectady. Not even GE, however, gave George the feeling that it was a place for him to establish a career.
George said he finally found his calling in 1960 when he came to work at the Army's Watervliet Arsenal. To George, working at the Arsenal was kind of like coming home, he said. Although he had never worked at the Arsenal, his father had for many years as a machinist.
George's voice lifted as he spoke with a sense of pride about his tenure at the Arsenal and the wonderful craftsmen that he had the pleasure to work with. He not only worked at the Arsenal during the heavy manufacturing years of the Vietnam War, he also worked at the Arsenal during the $300 million renovation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Both were two pivotal periods in the Arsenal's nearly 200-year history that helped ensure the long-term viability of the Arsenal. For 24 years, George designed tools and gauges at the Arsenal until he retired in 1984.
But retirement has not slowed George down.
Although gambling has proven not to be George's strong suit, even when it involves just pennies, he is now wagering that he can inspire enough local citizens to resurrect the feeling of pride in New York's Capital District by honoring one of the nation's iconic symbols - Uncle Sam.
George said he strongly believes that Troy has lost some of its greatness and importance because the community has forgotten its rich history.
"There are probably only two symbols that are easily identifiable as representations of the strength and resolve of the United States," George said. "The first is the American flag and the second is Uncle Sam, but few residents know much about Uncle Sam."
But by all accounts - and by the accounts that George's wife has been keeping - George has made a second career out of researching and then promoting the deeds of Uncle Sam. He has written a book, produced brochures and a video, and has designed a memorial at Prospect Park in Troy.
So, when most folks in their 80s are trying to enjoy their Golden Years, George has been working tirelessly using some of his personal savings to the tune of more than $4,000 to help rekindle the community's spirit.
Through the Uncle Sam Memorial Foundation, George has planted the seeds to resurrect an American symbol and thereby, helping to resurrect community pride. He is now looking for the community to help him, help Troy.