Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fathers of Mine: Harlan Martin Geyer Sr

This is the second of a series on the men who make up my paternal line, the first was about my father Harlan Martin Geyer Jr.


The year is 1920. It's the era of Prohibition, Babe Ruth has just signed with the Yankees, "Big Bill" Tilden is the first American to win Wimbledon, the US population has reached 117.8 million, and on July 22, my grandfather, Harlan Martin Geyer, Sr., was born in Lime Creek, Iowa. The oldest of twelve children born to Francis Grant and Grace (McGimpsey) Geyer.

In history books, we find the Depression associated with the 1930's, but for farmers in Iowa and other rural areas, it hit a decade earlier. During WWI, American farmers heeded the call to produce extra food for American soldiers and the peoples of the war-torn nations of Europe, causing an explosion in the prices of farmland and farm commodities. Both speculators and farmers went deep into debt to buy more land, better equipment, and more livestock. But as the war ended and the farms of Europe once more became productive, prices fell sharply. A bushel of corn that sold for $1.73 in July 1920, sold for only $0.41 a year later. Farmers went bankrupt, banks foreclosed, but with the sharp drop in land value, the banks still couldn't recoup the money they'd loaned and many small rural banks failed. This was the world in which Harlan Geyer grew up.

Harlan was raised just north of Wellman, Washington, Iowa. In 1920, his father was a tenant farmer, working rented land to support his quickly growing family. Life was stressful; they had problems making ends meet for a family that grew with the birth of a child every two years. Harlan and his parents didn't get along, and starting at the age of 12, he found himself living first with his great-uncle Grant Griffith, then his uncle Wilbur Geyer.

In May 1938, Harlan graduated Wellman High School and along with his diploma, received a Normal Training Certificate. He got a position teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in English River, Iowa, where he taught kindergarten through eighth grade for a year.

Harlan's USMC portrait

On December 7, 1941, World War II reached the United States when the Japanese made a surprise attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Young American men enlisted by the thousands to do their part for their country. One of these men was Harlan Geyer. As part of the 2nd Marine Division, Harlan served in three major battles of the Pacific Campaign, Tarawa atoll, Saipan and Tinian.

Harlan and friends

I had a group of radio operators, a group of telephone alignment switchmen, and some message center people, you know, 20 or 30 guys were reporting to me. [They'd] string lines and set up switchboard, operated portable radios. Most of the communicators were [not on the front lines] well, there’s communicators on the front line too, but actually I was in a shore party battalion, mainly they set up on the beach. We weren’t inland fighting the enemy. We come under fire when we landed at Saipan because, you know, the enemy wasn’t that far ahead. And one of my men was killed by a mortar.

After the war, he was ready to settle down and start a family. It took him four proposals to four different girls, but eventually he found the right one, his good friend Ila Bear. They were married June 11, 1945 in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina by Navy Chaplain Harold B. Lawson. The ceremony was witnessed by their friends Dorothy Harloff and William Marshall.

Harlan looked for work in Moline, Illinois, interviewing for a job at the telephone company, but they wanted him to start out at the bottom of the ladder. This didn't sit well with Harlan, who felt he deserved credit for the four years of wartime communications experience under his belt. Dismayed at his prospects in the civilian workforce, Harlan decided he would make his career as a Marine. For their first year of marriage, Ila lived with her brother John in Moline, where she taught elementary school, while Harlan was sent to school in Missouri. Harlan was soon after stationed at Camp Pendleton and Ila moved with him to Oceanside, California, where they had two children, Harlan Jr. and Cherie.

Harlan Sr, Ila, Harlan Jr and Cherie at Harlan's graduation ceremony in 1957

While serving as the supply chief of Base Communications at Camp Pendleton, Harlan went back to school, earning an Associate of Arts degree from Oceanside-Carlsbad College in 1957. My father, Harlan Jr, would tell us that his main memory of his father was of Harlan Sr studying at his desk in the back room of the house.

Harlan and Ila with Christina

Harlan Sr and Ila were devoted grandparents. After Harlan Jr married and moved to Virginia in 1978, Harlan Sr and Ila decided to move as well, living for several years with Harlan Jr's family in Oak Hill. But as the family grew, the house got crowded and Harlan and Ila moved first to a townhouse in Chantilly, then to a ranch-style house in Herndon. Us grandchildren often spent the weekends at their home, my youngest brother Christian lived with them for some time so he could attend the school near their home.

In 1992, after fighting for years against aggressive breast cancer, Ila passed away. Harlan joined a widowers club where he met Mary Bahlmann, who soon became his second wife. Harlan and Mary were active in Civitan and the local bridge club. Harlan often taught craft workshops at the local senior center.

They lived happily for many years, until 2001, which ended up being a very tough year for Harlan. Mary had a recurrence of colon cancer and his son, Harlan Jr, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Both passed away during the course of the year.

Harlan and Mary Geyer

Harlan stepped into the role of father for us grandchildren. Having breakfast at the Reston Silver Diner with his grandsons every Saturday, where even the waitstaff knew him as "Grandpa", and travelling all the way to Berlin, Germany to walk me down the aisle at my wedding in 2003.

Harlan escorting Christina down the aisle at her wedding, 24 May 2003

At the end of 2005, Harlan was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He passed away on March 24, 2006 at the age of 85.


Harlan Martin Geyer, Sr. (Age 85) of Reston, Virginia, died on Friday, March 24, 2006 at Fair Oaks Hospital after a four month battle with esophageal cancer. He was born July 20, 1920 in the town of Wellman, Iowa, to the late Francis Grant and Grace McGimpsey Geyer.

Harlan served 20 years in the US Marine Corps, attaining the rank of 1st Sergeant. As a member of the 2nd Marine Division, he took part in the Battle of Tarawa, one of the bloodiest battle of the Pacific in World War II. He also served in the Battles of Saipan and Tinian.

On June 11, 1945, he was joined in marriage to Ila I. Bear. After her passing in 1992, he was united in marriage to his second wife, Mary Gallagher Farley Bahlmann, who passed away in 2001. Harlan is survived by three brothers, Calvin, Larry and La Verne; his sisters, Doris Allard, Dorothy Biddle and Niva Nix; his daughter, Cherie Geyer and his grandchildren, Christopher, Christian and Christina Geyer and her husband, Rainer Spang. Harlan also rejoiced in being a loving grandfather to Beth, Patty, Scott and Chris Farley, grandchildren of his second wife. He was preceded in death by his son, Harlan M. Geyer, Jr., of Oak Hill, Virginia.

Funeral services for HARLAN M. GEYER will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 1 at ADAMS-GREEN FUNERAL HOME, 721 Elden St., Herndon, VA.
Burial will be at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday, April 11 at 10 a.m. Relatives and friends are welcome.

Written by Christina Geyer, an abbreviated version appeared in The Washington Post on March 29, 2006.

Harlan's burial ceremony at Arlington, 11 April 2006


Saami 6/17/2007 11:19 PM  

Christina, I read some of your blog and find it interesting to see how much you know about your family. I must say that your grandfather is admirable to have the strength to move away from home at the age of 12. What an amazing story about Harlan, your grandfather. I look forward to read more in your blog later. Thank you for sharing.

Christina G 6/19/2007 1:44 PM  

@saami: I don't know if his moving away involved any strength, I never found out if he went on his own or was kicked out!

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