Carl Sherman: Gift for listening helps veterans share their stories

2016 Unsung Hero Carl Sherman. Photo: Yana Hotter

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Sometimes being an Unsung Hero simply means listening to other heroes. That’s a lesson that defines Carl Sherman of Creve Coeur.

For the past three years, Sherman has volunteered with the Missouri Veterans History Project, helping to record oral histories. Copies of the videotaped interviews are given not just to the veteran but to the Library of Congress and the State Historical Society of Missouri.

“A lot of these veterans have never told anybody,” Sherman said. “This is easier. They wind up talking to strangers. It is easier for them than to tell their kids about it.”

For Sherman, who is the project’s St. Louis site coordinator, it all began during a chance encounter with a friend while working out at the Jewish Community Center. He asked the friend what he was doing in retirement.

“He said, ‘Come and watch me,’ ” Sherman recalled.

Sherman did and was amazed by the stories he heard. Not all were about combat. Many also chronicled various facets of the veterans’ lives before and after their wars. It’s a life story, Sherman said, not just a military story.

“I had an interview with a man who escaped from Germany,” he said. “He was 96 years old. His parents wound up in a concentration camp, but he and his two sisters came to St. Louis.” 

The man, Erich Dahl, was 18 and working as a pastry chef in Germany before he came to the United States in 1938. In October, 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served as a Mess Sergeant in the South Pacific. After the war, he worked for Famous-Barr as its director of food services, and the company sent him to France — where he developed the store’s famous onion soup. 

Sherman’s dedication to the program comes from his desire to assist others, his friend Neil Lazaroff said.

“I’ve known Carl for 50 years, and Carl has always been interested in ‘the other guy,’ ” Lazaroff said. “He’s not only out there to learn about what the other guy is interested in, but he’s also out there to help the other guy.”

Lazaroff described Sherman as a loyal and kind man whose humility truly makes him an Unsung Hero.

“I don’t even know all the things he’s done because he doesn’t brag about it,” he said. “He does it very quietly.”

Another friend, Ed Musen, has known Sherman for more than six decades.

“He likes to be with people, to be around people, talk to people, learn about people,” said Musen, a trustee of the Jewish Light.

Musen said Sherman’s work with the veterans program is an example of that.

“I think it started out just as a volunteer thing, but as he got further into it, he saw these personal stories and I’m sure a lot of them touched him,” he said. “He told me that some of them gave him a tear.”

Sherman said some stories do choke him up. Sometimes the veterans can’t make it all the way through a story.

“The stories we hear are those you will never hear about and never read about,” he said. “Not all of the stories we hear are nice.” 

Sherman remembers the story of a sailor who described sharks eating his shipmates after their boat was sunk. Another veteran talked about seeing the horrors of a concentration camp during its liberation. 

“A lot of these guys have been in combat,” Sherman said. “They break down. We stop the video and let them recover.”

Some talk eagerly, while others are reserved and hold back.

“We don’t press them on it,” Sherman said. “The object is to let them talk.”

Sherman, who briefly served with the National Guard but was never called up into combat, said some veterans bring memorabilia and relics for the interview.

“We encourage the veterans to bring pictures, maps, medals, uniforms,” he said. “We’ve actually had guys put on their uniforms.”

Although the Missouri Veterans History Project is Sherman’s main way of giving his time, his introduction to volunteerism wasn’t related to the military at all. It came about when his father-in-law tragically developed kidney disease, eventually dying at the age of 54. 

After that, his wife, Helene, became involved with the National Kidney Foundation, of which Sherman would become a board member. He also served the St. Louis Chapter of the group in various capacities, including treasurer, president and chairman.

Sherman also was on the board of United Hebrew and was involved with Missouri’s Israel Bond drive. 

“We built a great nation,” he said of the Jewish State. “I thought it was a great investment at the time and it still is.”

Sherman also has volunteered at the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry for the past three years as a registrar.

But his main efforts are working with vets, those who were in combat and those who were not. He speaks at American Legion and VFW halls, as well as synagogues and retirement homes, to try and get more people to share their stories. The project has collected more than 1,100 histories. 

Sherman said that while veterans of all wars are welcome, the project is trying hardest to record the histories of World War II vets for one simple reason.

“There are less and less every day,” he said.

As for Sherman’s involvement, that’s pretty simple, too.

“I just became fascinated with the stories,” he said.

Carl Sherman

Age: 71

Family: Wife, Helene; two adult children and four grandchildren

Home: Creve Coeur

Occupation: Accountant and owner of a blinds and draperies business (retired)

Fun fact:  Sherman’s favorite book is “Truman” by David McCullough.