Don Hentges stood solemnly as his good friend, Mike Kehoe, presented him with an award early Wednesday afternoon.
Then, Hentges' lip quivered a bit and his voice broke as he thanked the lieutenant governor for the recognition presented for decades serving veterans.
And, like other recipients of the award, he was humble in accepting it.
Hentges, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) state adjunct and president of the Jefferson City Veterans Council, was one of 11 people to receive a Lieutenant Governor's Senior Service Award for 2022.
A U.S. Army veteran, Hentges served in the Vietnam War. He said the memory of his friend and fellow soldier Willie McVea in later years encouraged him to speak about his experience overseas, and to organize and participate in events and services dedicated to helping veterans.
"All of you have heard me talk about Willie over the years," Hentges said. "It's because of Willie that I do things. He's inspired me to do a lot, and every time I think I don't want to get involved in something or that I'll let somebody else do it, Willie's there saying, 'Oh, you got to do this.'
"It's an honor to receive this, and I'm very humbled."
Kehoe said he's not involved in the nomination process for the award, but his office looks for retired individuals who perform great acts of community service while going above and beyond what is required of them. Each year, it gathers hundreds of applications from across the state for the award.
Then, they received a nomination letter from state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City. It detailed Hentges' achievements in retirement.
For the second year in a row, Kehoe said during a surprise ceremony held at the state VFW offices, he was able to present an award to someone he's known such a long time. Last year, Sharon Naught was a recipient.
Kehoe said he and Hentges have worked closely together through multiple events assisting veterans and their families.
"Donnie has been a friend of mine and a friend of the community and especially a friend of the veterans for as long as I've been around," Kehoe said. "Whether it's been on the (Jefferson City) Veterans Council, whether it's been with Operation Bugle Boy ... whether it's been with Wreaths for Heroes -- I really don't know any event that's been in the community that has to do with veterans where Don Hentges has not been there."
The surprise was spoiled early Thursday, Hentges said, when his wife required him to dress better for work than normal. And, being a military veteran, he checked his surroundings when he arrived at his office, and noticed the conference room was filled with chairs.
Surprises aren't his biggest thrill, he said. He added he likes to be prepared. But he wasn't prepared for the recognition.
Whenever he can, Hentges shares the story of his Army friend, McVea. He promised McVea he'd keep the radio man's memory alive. The same land-mine explosion that killed McVea severely injured Hentges, causing him to be taken to multiple hospitals.
While moving around, Hentges lost his address book, and possible contact for the McVea family. About 45 years later, with the help of the internet, he found his friend's grave in Austin, Texas.
And a fellow Vietnam veteran helped him find McVea's Texas family, whom he eventually befriended.
This spring, he met three of McVea's sisters. One was only about 7 years old when McVea died, and like McVea's child, didn't really know him, Hentges said. Another sister was a sophomore in high school when McVea died. He said she was very much like his lost friend.
It was pleasant to meet the man's sisters, and hear more stories about when McVea was a child, he said. He also shared with them stories about McVea as an adult in the Army.
Hentges has used his promise to maintain his friend's memory to spur him to serve other veterans.
After he retired, Hentges said, he was asked to serve as adjunct to the VFW. He said yes, but would only do so for a year.
Every incoming commander since has asked him to stay on, he said, and he has agreed. He's now in his fourth year in the position.
"I really do enjoy it, or I wouldn't be here," Hentges said. "It's a way to help veterans. And, it's a way to help me, too."