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It's said the real test of a man's worth is his willingness to sacrifice for those whose thanks he'll never hear. If that's true, Jack van der Geest has left a mountain of worth behind him.

My knowledge of Jack, unfortunately, is not first-hand. I missed the opportunity to meet him - by hours.

When I heard the World War Two veteran and Holocaust survivor was being honored this past March 3 - the 66th anniversary of his escape from the infamous Buchenwald death camp - I called to set up a radio interview.

The brief conversation we had was comprised of some friendly banter and hearty laughter - something I later found was common with Jack: making people laugh. We decided on 2 p.m., March 5; two days away.

My wife and I arrived in Rapid early, having scheduled interviews around my time with Jack. Slightly delayed by my first meeting, I called to say we were nearby and would arrive shortly. A woman answered the phone and, after I explained who I was, advised that Jack had passed away suddenly in the early morning hours.

Over the years, I've learned that a journalist never quite knows what the next story will bring. Each one is different. And no matter how well you plan coverage, there's always something unexpected.

But I'd never experienced anything like this - an interview canceled due to death. Shocked is the best I can do to describe my reaction at the sad news, and that doesn't really capture the unrest that ran through my body and held my mouth ajar.

After offering my condolences, I contacted my radio news director and requested that I be permitted to cover Jack's story anyway - even though such wasn't the norm.

Given approval, I attended Jack's funeral, along with hundreds of other mourners on a cold, winter day with frigid winds blowing and snow still on the ground.

A week later, I met with Jack's wife, Anne, and some of his friends to discuss the legend as well as the man. The legend involved stories of a 16 year-old Dutch boy who fought against the Germans for two years as a member of the underground. Captured, he was sent - along with his parents - to Nazi death camps. Jack ended up at the infamous Buchenwald Camp. There, he posed as a barber and a doctor. It helped him survive, but he still took his share of beatings and torture.

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By hiding beneath a pile of dead bodies for 13 hours, Jack eventually escaped and made his way to France, where he joined the French Resistance. He later served as an interpreter for the 101st Airborne Division at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. He even joined the Dutch Marines and then the U.S. Air Force when he moved to America.

All this would be more than sufficient to establish anyone's worth. But Jack, the man, added to that value as a loving husband and father, along with the volunteer work he was known for in his community.

When questions about the "reality" of the Holocaust became fashionable, Jack went through the painful process of writing his autobiography and toured the country telling people about his experiences.

Some have called him a hero. That may be true. But I think he was a common man's historian, telling the truth that he lived so that others may learn and remember.

Jack's family and friends - and at least one journalist - will remember him this weekend as the nation sets aside time to honor all of her fallen.

Jim Kent lives in Hot Springs. Write to kentvfte@gwtc.net. Find all local columnists and more at the Journal opinion site: www.rapidcityjournal.com/news/opinions/

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