Remembering a Fallen Hero on Veterans Day: My Friend Bud Harenchar

In honor of Veteran’s Day, the author remembers a long time friend and veteran of the Vietnam War, Albert “Bud” Harenchar, Jr.

When I run the 10K Bolder Boulder on Memorial Day, it is always with a tag on my race-day t-shirt commemorating the life of Albert M. (“Bud”) Harenchar, Jr.  I met Bud when I was selected as a career intern in what was then known as personnel management at Fort Riley, Kansas.  Bud had been in the intern class just before ours, and immediately befriended the four new interns (Marion McAleer, Ed Fisher, Jim Baker and me) and helped show us the ropes.  Bud bore a striking resemblance to the great actor Ed Harris in the latter’s younger days.  His head was so well-shaped that he looked better without hair than I’ve ever looked with it – but I liked him anyway.

I was immediately struck by Bud’s incredibly high energy level, keen intelligence, enthusiasm and ever-present sense of humor.  I learned from others, not from Bud, that he had been seriously injured as a field artillery officer in Vietnam.  He was wounded by a land mine on May 28, 1969.  Bud was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries received and the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service against hostile forces.  He had been hospitalized for months recovering from his injuries.

Photo of Bud Harenchar

Fort Riley had a large but close-knit Civilian Personnel Office.  We worked and played together, and most of the interns from the two most recent groups took Master’s Degree classes in Systems Management from the University of Southern California at Fort Riley after work.  We would often play chess in the period between the end of our work day and the beginning of our class.  I’m sure I must have beaten Bud at least once; I just can’t specifically remember having done so.  I wasn’t bad, but he was better.

Bud and his wife, Sue, a short, cute, feisty brunette and a character in her own right, owned a Cal 21 sailboat.  It was one beautiful boat, fast, comfortable and fun.  Bud took to sailing like a duck to water, and we spent many weekends and plenty of workday evenings sailing on Milford or Tuttle Creek Reservoir.  Bud was such a skillful sailor that we never had to fear for our safety, even when sudden storms would boil up over the lake.  And the harder the wind blew, the faster the sleek boat would carve through the waves – an experience that was at once both relaxing and exhilarating.  Sue and I both encountered the boom with our heads when we were too slow to duck.  In her case, the boom swung around and knocked her petite frame right off the boat.  She came up sputtering and cursing a blue streak at Bud, who was struggling mightily, though unsuccessfully, to avoid laughing, as and after she was brought back on-board.

Bud always wanted to get the boat back on the water at the first sign of spring, and he would ask me to go with him.  We were out on Milford Reservoir one day in April when a cold wind came up, bringing dark, menacing clouds with it.  Soon hard pellets of freezing rain were hitting me in the face, and I was so cold that my teeth started chattering.  Bud was unperturbed, as always, but, seeing my discomfort, he did turn around and head for the marina sooner than he would have on his own.  Even after we got back to their house, changed clothes and had several cups of hot chocolate, I thought I’d never get warm.  But I still said yes every time he asked me to accompany him.

We had such great times with Bud and Sue and our other Fort Riley friends that it was a surprisingly hard decision to accept a job offer at the Air Force Academy, in my hometown of Colorado Springs.  And we went back to Manhattan the next summer for a reunion with my former co-workers and their families.  After that, it was Bud and Sue’s turn to move – all the way to Anchorage, where Bud had accepted a position with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

We kept in touch throughout their tenure in Alaska, where they made some savvy acquisitions of rental houses and added to their growing net worth.  Their next move was to Fort Worth, where Bud was the FAA’s Employee Development Officer.  They had a house built on Eagle Mountain Lake, although they were quick to point out that the name was a bit of a misnomer since there were no mountains and they had yet to see an eagle. – But they were able to have their latest and largest Cal sailboat in a slip right behind the house.

Bud was selected to be one of the lead trainers in the FAA’s major new training initiative on Stephen Covey’s best-selling business book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  Bud was so enthusiastic about the training that I was ready to take his course – and I didn’t even work for the FAA.

The courage Bud had demonstrated during his tour in Vietnam carried over to his personal life, sometimes resulting in the kind of adventures I could only imagine.  One year, for example, Bud had to be in New Orleans on business and Sue and two of the grandkids drove there to join him.  As Bud walked out on the sidewalk in the French Quarter to wait for Sue and the kids, he looked down the street and saw a little red Toyota 4-Runner which looked a lot like their vehicle.  As it got closer to him, he glanced at the license plate, which bore a Purple Heart tag, and he realized that it didn’t just resemble their 4 Runner – it was their 4 Runner!

By that time, the vehicle was passing in front of him on the street with a man at the wheel.  The prudent choice would undoubtedly have been to call the police, but Bud was angry and his adrenaline was flowing, so he quickly decided to chase down the truck and started running.  The driver, not wanting to call attention to himself in a stolen vehicle, had to stop at the end of the block since a little old lady had entered the crosswalk, moving slowly.  This delayed the driver long enough for Bud to catch up with the Toyota.

Bud could see that the passenger door was unlocked, so he jumped in on that side and immediately grabbed the disbelieving driver, knotting the man’s shirt under his neck so he couldn’t move.  Bud demanded to know what the man thought he was doing driving his truck and, without waiting for an answer, pushed him against the driver’s side door.  Bud got that door open and shoved the perpetrator out onto the sidewalk.  When the chase had ended and Bud had recaptured their vehicle and gotten back to his family, he told Sue that he was sure the little old lady was an angel sent to keep the thief from getting away with his SUV.  And Bud’s admittedly risky action quite possibly caused the thief to second-guess his decision to pursue a life of crime.

We were in frequent touch with Bud and Sue through the years, and when we drove back to Colorado from Washington, D.C., after my Congressional Fellowship ended, we stopped to see them in Fort Worth.  They let us know that Bud had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and would be receiving treatment at the famed M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  The doctors there linked his cancer to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, so the long-ago war had inflicted yet another grievous wound on him.

Bud was completely confident that he would beat this new medical threat, and, typically, he fought it with everything he had – both physically and mentally.  I talked to him by phone on a weekly basis, and some weeks were obviously better than others for him, which I only knew by how tired he sometimes sounded, though he was relentlessly optimistic, or by talking to Sue.  His condition eventually deteriorated, and while he remained positive in all of our weekly conversations, the test results they were getting on him were no longer good, or even mixed.

On January 21, 1998, Bud’s gallant heart stopped beating following a massive heart attack.  It was, and still is, hard to believe that such a vibrant personality was no longer with us, at least not physically.

The FAA, in establishing a scholarship in his memory, stated that “Bud Harenchar deserves this honor because he was a hero and touched so many lives in such special ways.  He was known because of his positive approach to life and living under the worst of circumstances.  He was consistent in his values and taught and lived the principles of the ‘Seven Habits’ course, which he taught.  He always did the right things for the right reasons…He dedicated his time to promoting the basic human rights of others by volunteering for voter registration on both the North and South sides of Ft. Worth, Texas.  He gave tuition money to deserving individuals, often without them knowing he was the sponsor.”

While the FAA’s tribute captured Bud’s impact on a wide variety of people and programs, his first commitment was always to his family, including Sue, her daughters Rhonda and Renaye, and grandchildren Aaron, Devra, Daniel and Kevin.

Sue applied for Bud to be added to the In Memory portion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, a program “designed to honor those veterans and civilians whose names are not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial but who died as a result of their experiences in Vietnam.”  Thanks to Sue’s unrelenting efforts, Bud’s name was added to the Honor Book at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.  The tributes left at the Wall are collected and preserved by the National Park Service, and there is an In Memory Honor Roll, which contains a photograph and biography of each honoree.

Bud was one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and running the Bolder Boulder in his honor is just one small way of keeping his memory alive.  It’s the least I can do for an American hero I was privileged to know for close to 30 years.  Dan Fogelberg, in his “Bones in the Sky” tribute song to the late iconic artist Georgia O’Keefe, wrote of “The life lived so well.”  I can’t think of any better description of my friend Bud Harenchar.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.