For Howard Ackerman, expressing gratitude to veterans is personal.
“I probably wouldn’t be speaking with you today if it weren’t for the U.S. Army,” Ackerman says.
His reverence, pride and patriotism are evident as Ackerman and colleagues from Regions Mortgage in Chicago, Ill., serve homeless veterans during a holiday celebration. Ackerman has organized the event since 2002. But the story of his deep appreciation toward service members began decades earlier.
Ackerman’s father, Laszlo Abraham Ackerman, was liberated from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp by U.S. soldiers in May 1945. Mauthausen was one of the largest camps, known for its overcrowded, unsanitary and especially harsh conditions. It was the last to be liberated by the Allies shortly before the end of World War II.
Laszlo began rebuilding his life following his arrival in the Bronx in 1948. There, he met and married Nancy Weinberger, who had also sought refuge in the United States. They learned English, secured employment as a luncheonette short-order cook and seamstress, and raised three first-generation American children.
The Ackermans instilled a strong sense of appreciation for American troops among Howard and his siblings. This gratitude is now transcending to the next generation.
On the first Sunday of December, as he does each year, Howard travels to Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago to host the holiday celebration for veterans at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center. As the first fully integrated health care facility to partner with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, the Lovell Center provides not only medical services but also housing for veterans ranging in age from 18 to 70.
For years, the celebration has been an Ackerman family tradition. Howard’s wife, Christine, joins him. His two daughters, now grown, no longer live in Chicago but still cling to the memories of seeing their parents share their generosity with those who have served the nation. Howard recalls a quiet car ride home 10 years ago – following a day at the station – during which his daughter, Samantha, reflected, “Dad, that was the best day of my life.”
This year, Ackerman invited his work family, the North Illinois Mortgage team from Regions Bank, where he serves as mortgage production manager. Engaging his teammates required little convincing, with volunteerism ingrained in the culture of Regions Bank. A group of 20 Regions associates, their family members and friends served a hearty meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, string beans, salad, sparkling cider and cake to more than 60 veterans.
Before lunch, the group paused for a moment to reflect on the Nov. 30 passing of fellow U.S. Navy veteran and former President George H.W. Bush. During the meal, conversation filled the room.
“For some veterans, returning to civilian life after their service can be cold and lonely,” Ackerman says. “We try to bring the warmth and joy of Christmas into their homes for an afternoon.”
Kenny List, a 37-year associate at the Lovell Center who serves as chief of community affairs, says the day represents far more than a hot meal.
“This is home for the veterans and active duty personnel we serve,” says List. “If it weren’t for people like Howard and the team at Regions sharing their time, there would be a big hole for our residents during this time of year.”
Following the meal, a medley of holiday carols was performed by North Central College a capella group “One Note Stand.” Each veteran hero received a gift bag filled with fleece gloves, hats, chocolate bars and an assortment of snacks before the festivities concluded.
“Those who attended left with their hands full and hopefully their hearts warmed,” says Ackerman.
As the day concludes, he thinks of the veterans’ sacrifice. He thinks of his parents’ experience. He looks ahead to how he, his family – and his colleagues – can continue to show their appreciation in the years to come.