Les Reile stood tall all his life with a passion for the underdog. Those touched by his smile, his endless stories and his love for all will keep his memory tucked safely in their hearts. Les was a man who was always thinking about what he could do for others, not what any of those he held close could do for him.
Les passed away last week at 88. His heart valves had weakened with age. That hardly slowed him down, though, as he continued to drive his van from Escalon where he had gone to high school, to Manteca where he stayed close to his wife in her final days. That van also took him to Ripon where he left his mark at the Interfaith Ministries leaving donations to help feed the hungry and on to Stockton with more donations.
It was last Thanksgiving and again on Christmas that Les went wild with his checkbook writing $1,000 donations each to food banks in Escalon, Ripon, Manteca and Stockton. Les always said it was something his late wife Giesela would want him to do with their extra funds. Giesela passed away July 29 of last year.
“Her Thanksgiving meals were the best – she loved to cook,” he would say as a broad smile crossed his face. He gave away $5,000 before the Thanksgiving holiday last year and another $5,000 at Christmas. The Manteca Ambulance was also a recipient of his big heart with several donations.
“The Manteca Ambulance saved me thousands of dollars,” he said, “through their minimal charges in transporting my wife to doctors’ offices and hospitals as far away as Sacramento.” She had also suffered from muscular dystrophy later falling and breaking a hip.
After his wife’s death, he continued to visit Doctors Hospital of Manteca almost daily where he had been a constant resident himself staying close to the love of his life. That’s where I met Les, riding around in his motorized wheelchair. He could often be seen in the parking lot taking it out of the back of his van by himself despite the stress on his weakened legs that he always tried to ignore. He didn’t need any help, he would say.
Les was always wearing his “God is Good” button as he made the rounds, making new friends on every pass. He would immediately gain the love and respect of all those he would meet. It was almost a daily routine to stop at the coffee shack off of the hospital lobby in Manteca and visit the proprietor, Ali, who had become one of his closest friends. Ali would caution him to be more careful with his money before someone saw what was in his wallet and try to take it away from him. He didn’t listen.
He would always bring gifts to his friends whether it was fresh fruit and nuts from his home or tubs of ice cream from the Escalon ice cream shop. The ice cream was especially for those outstanding nurses who had taken care of his wife until her last day. He had been a fixture of sorts sleeping in her room, making her feel his love and knowing she was safe with him close by.
Les would make the loops in his handicapped van from that favorite ice cream shop in Escalon to the Second Harvest Food Bank in Manteca to the Manteca Senior Center where he drew new friends who were awed by this man and his stories of his 20 some years in the military and his life at his military post in Germany where he had met his wife at a USO dance.
It was love at first sight he had told me. “I pointed to the woman coming in the door and told my buddy, I’m going to marry that woman.”
He had entered the Army in 1946 just after the end of World War II and continued into the Vietnam conflict as a map-making specialist earningthe Bronze Star. Sgt. Reile was credited with saving the lives of countless soldiers years later when he discovered incorrect coordinates on maps that were causing mortars to be fired short and into our own troops. Les told me that thousands had been killed unnecessarily because of the earlier mapping failures. A colonel had recognized his abilities and pretty much gave him a free reign, he had said.
Everywhere he went in the last year and for those he met, it was “family” to him. With a twinkle of the eye, a broad smile and a simple “Hi” he would win people over in an instant to appreciate this man among men, who without a doubt, loved his country as much as anything else. When he first started to visit the recreation room at the Manteca Senior Center he played cards with other seniors. It wasn’t long before he had a full table getting to know someone very special they all regarded as a new friend. When he wasn’t there, they all wanted to know why.
After returning to the states, he earned a Business Degree with a minor in Psychology from the University of Maryland. He spoke German fluently after being stationed in Germany and had planned to move to Mallorca with his wife when they retired. They had saved money for their retirement but after Geisela’s death he decided to help the less fortunate with their savings.
“It was what my wife would have wanted me to do with it,” he repeatedly said. “We have to help those in need.”
Several of us went to lunch with Les at the Canal Street Grill in Ripon a couple months ago – a lunch that will be long remembered. Les Reile wore his heart and his soul on his sleeve and had no qualms about letting people know he was spiritual in his very nature.
Les Reile lived his life with a light heart and a kind heart.
In short, he was a good man.