ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Most people in our area know Gary Beikirch as a Medal of Honor recipient for his heroics in the Vietnam War or as the sage counselor in the Greece Central School District.
Stephanie Zimmerli and Sarah Hinds know him as dad.
They, along with the entire community, are mourning his loss this week.
Beikirch passed away over the weekend after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Zimmerli and Hinds sat down with Adam Chodak to talk about the gifts and challenges that came with being Beikirch’s daughters.
Adam Chodak: So a lot of people know your father as the Vietnam War hero or the school counselor. You knew him as dad. What was that like from your perspective?
Stephanie Zimmerli: He imparted to us kids the same thing he imparted to everybody else, you know, just unconditional love, strength, gentleness at the same time. And we saw his life in it as an example and that’s helped us live our lives, you know? I had a little bit of a different experience growing up than probably my sister. She’s seven years younger and when I was little, I can remember when I was little, I didn’t necessarily know what he was going through, but I could tell, he was a lot quieter and a lot more introspective. We lived in the woods and all that kind of stuff as you, if you’ve read his book, you know. So when I was little, I was a little hesitant to ask him things or not upset him, that kind of thing, but he was always the same man. And as I grew and I could ask him anything, talk to him about anything and he’s so open and just so loving.
AC: So you kind of saw his healing?
SZ: Definitely. When he met my mom and I can remember one story, which is in the book and I remember it, he was living the way he lived in Vietnam and then coming back, seeing all the excess that we all have here as Americans and he didn’t think it was necessary that I had a lunchbox for school. You can carry a brown bag and my mom was insistent, I got that Holly Hobbie lunch box, but, in fact, a friend of his just sent me a vintage Holly Hobbie lunch box. That’s funny. So I did get to see a lot of his healing and I saw his healing and then I saw him with the Veterans Outreach Center, just help heal others, and his healing came from God and he imparted that too to everyone.
AC: What was it like to have that discovery that kids of parents with this kind of notoriety can have?
SZ: I think it wasn’t to me as large of a notoriety as it’s become. The older he’s gotten and the more speaking that he’s done and the more comfortable I think he became with the medal, I think he just saw it as a way to reach people. He always felt like anyone would do what he did. You know? Even though a lot of people probably wouldn’t. That’s why not everybody has a Medal of Honor .When we were little I remember being down when they first were fixing that house for the Veterans Outreach Center. So it was a lot of humble beginnings and then growing up to, I was probably a teenager-ish, when you start to notice you can’t go to Wegmans without someone saying something to him. My sister would probably get a little bit more irritated about it. Like she didn’t want to share dad all the time and that part of it was hard even as an adult sometimes just because he was gone a lot. He really loved what he did but it was so wonderful for me to go with him and my mom to Florida this year. And they did an event. American Airlines put on an event for cancer patients, veterans, and he went and he spoke and I mean, just watching him speak to people, just one on one and the difference that even just a conversation with him made to their lives. He lived a life of service and we were taught to do the same.
AC: What kind of role did faith play in your family when you were growing?
SZ: Oh, huge. It was everything, everything. Everything we do, everything we say, we were always said to glorify the Lord with it. And that’s how we were brought up. God is the most important thing in our family.
AC: Is there some amount of comfort that you’re drawing, knowing that?
SZ: Definitely. He’s not in pain anymore. And I know he is in heaven and able to see all of us and what’s going on. It was really difficult at the end, very difficult watching him in the amount of pain that he was in. I know he was waiting for Christmas. He really probably should have passed a couple days before he did, but he was holding out for Christmas. He didn’t want to do that to us. So the last few days he wouldn’t, he didn’t want to go to sleep and he was up and down and up and down. And some of that restlessness is normal at the end, but it was a determination. I could see it and we’d put him in the recliner and then we’d have to do vigils. We had to take turns up at night because he wouldn’t go to bed and he’d sit there in the recliner and then he’d try to get up. And then whoever was there, Dad, sit back down, Dad, sit back down or you can’t get up by yourself. We’d have to lift him. And, you know, we’d slowly walk into the kitchen or it was just, he wouldn’t stay in one spot because he didn’t want to fall asleep. He just kept moving. And that required probably towards the end, about three people to help him do it, which was our honor, of course, but the end, he was in a lot of pain a lot and it was so hard to watch him pass, but it was also a relief knowing that he wasn’t in pain anymore.
AC: Anything else you’d like to add Stephanie that I might have missed?
SZ: Just how we’re so thankful or the community and the outpouring of love and respect that we’ve had. I mean, it’s just an overwhelming amount of love and respect. To some he’s a war hero, to some, he was their school counselor to some, he was a veteran, he counseled them, some, he was a friend that he imparted to his friends and he was a daddy and a grandpa and a great grandpa. He’s got a great grandson. So the community has just made this so much easier. And I didn’t think that would be the case. I thought it was going be, wow, this is gonna be overwhelming. You know, it’s gonna be so hard because everybody’s gonna say something, but it’s actually been a real comfort and it’ll continue. I know it’ll continue. His reach has been very, very far reaching and it’s just so touching and it just makes me want to have that kind of legacy myself, to really reach people.
Adam Chodak: How are you and the family doing right now?
Sarah Hinds: We’re kind of focused right now on things that we need to get through to the calling hours and the celebration of life. We’re doing OK. I have seven of my own kids and so I’m trying to make sure they’re all processing it and handling it. And each one handles it a little bit differently. So navigating through that and trying to be there for my mom and my sister and my brother as well as is a as a task in itself. But it’s still important.
AC: So a lot of logistics keeping your mind occupied. When you reflect on your father, especially now that he’s passed, what keeps coming to mind for you?
SH: Everything he’s taught me how to live. Even something you had mentioned with the question you asked my sister was, when did you realize the significance of who he was as a kid growing up? And I actually remember that moment in my life. My dad was a counselor in our school. And I was sitting in there. We were watching a history lesson on the Vietnam war, and I sat there and I, you know, I’ve heard about the Vietnam War, but I never really did any extensive research or anything on it. And I remember sitting there watching it and all of a sudden I just started crying and I was like, my dad went through this and it really made me appreciate who he was, because I would’ve never thought that somebody like him had gone through something like that because he was so gentle and humble and caring and compassionate and empathetic. And even though he was my dad, he really almost was my counselor as well. I had school counselors in school, but whenever I was, whenever I was in school, I wouldn’t go see them. I would go down to my dad’s office and talk to him instead, because that’s where I was comfortable. And I was very thankful to grow up in a school where my dad was the counselor as well. Yeah. So he really did strive to lead us towards a life that, brings significance and purpose. And I really strive for that. That’s what I remember is really that, and that’s what he kept on saying towards the end here too. He would always say something he really wants to strive people to do is to think about what you’re living for in life and do it with purpose. And for his purpose, it was living a life to spread love and lead people to Jesus and he wanted people to really see where his compassion side came from. And that really was God.
AC: One thing that stood out in my interview with your father is how indebted he feels to the teenager who saved his life in Vietnam. Do you think about that? The fact that you have this big family with lots of kids and grand kids and all that because of the actions of someone you’ll never know.
SH: Yeah. I never totally understood the significance of that until even probably more recently. He didn’t talk about it a lot until the last few years and now he got more comfortable talking about it and it really made me think, because I’ve had teenage kids. And I think like that’s pretty amazing that a 15-year-old boy would do that. And the love that he must have had for my dad, even at that young of an age, it shows my dad didn’t changed that much from who he probably really was. He had to wrestle with a lot of things from the war, but the compassion side of him and the care that he had for the people there, that boy felt and he felt the need to protect. So it’s inspiring. And the legacy that my dad will have, I just really want to live out for him, want to encourage my kids to live out for him. Because even though he’s gone, the stories that I read on Facebook and all of that, it, you can tell he’s still having a huge impact on the community and people that are still here. So his story’s not done.
AC: Speaking of a lot of people are hurting right now in their own way. You guys are suffering. What message do you think that we should take away from his life? What would he say to us right now?
SH: I think I touched on it a little bit when I was saying to live a life of significance and purpose. Just recently, he had a walkway named after him at Olympia High School there. And that’s kind of what the plaque there said was to make sure that you’re always looking to help other people and to have purpose in all your decisions and everything that you do. And that the true comfort and the way to feel those things is he would always lead people to Jesus is really what it was. Even if it was an underlying thing, he would always make sure that he knew that everything he was doing was for his honor, which is something that we repeat all the time. He has a little booklet that’s for his honor because he wants people to know that, living a life for his honor is what’s important. And because doing it for yourself is not rewarding even though sometimes it may feel that way, but living a life for his honor and for other people is very important.