Born to refugee parents who had fled their native Hungary, Robert Ivany hardly seemed destined for a stellar military career that included service as an aide to an American president.
After beginning his life in a hospital outside a displaced-persons camp in Austria, Ivany immigrated to the U.S. with his parents, settling in Cleveland’s Hungarian community and becoming a naturalized citizen at age 10. As he grew up and considered his future, he was attracted to the Army and applied to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“It seemed like a very noble calling and, as I tried to figure out what to do, the mission and values that West Point portrayed drew me in,” said Ivany, a member of Legatus’ Houston Chapter and one of many Legates who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Tom Wessels, past president of Legatus’ Atlanta Chapter, retired in 2003 as a major general in the U.S. Army after six years of active duty and 31 years in the reserves. The son of a World War II veteran, Wessels knew as a high school student that he would go into the service. He began officer training after completing graduate school.
Jerry Schoenle of Legatus’ Ann Arbor Chapter, who served as a U.S. naval officer from 1984 to 1989, also heard a call to military life in high school and joined the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps unit at the University of Michigan. He was commissioned as an ensign the same day he received his bachelor’s degree in engineering.
For Ivany, now the president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, West Point turned out to be the beginning of a 34-year Army career during which he served in Vietnam, Germany, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.
As a platoon leader in Vietnam with five tanks under his command, he was injured when a rocket fragment exploded, striking him in the back. He returned to combat within a few weeks and later received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. His last military position was commandant of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
One of Ivany’s most challenging and enjoyable assignments was serving two years as a military aide to President Ronald Reagan. The position required him to be on duty every fourth or fifth day and to accompany the president outside the White House.
“If he went anywhere, the aide was in the car behind him, along with a doctor. If he was in California, one of us was with him up at the ranch. If he went horseback riding, we went horseback riding.”
Ivany said his up-close-and-personal view of Reagan was no different than the one the public saw. “I think all the aides would agree he was every bit as gentlemanly and sincere in private as he was in public. He was as gracious to the gardener in the Rose Garden as he was to the Queen of England when she walked into his office.”
What made Reagan so memorable, Ivany explained, was that he would make an extra effort to get to know people and establish a personal connection. Ivany believes this is one reason Reagan was able to achieve breakthroughs with the former Soviet Union — including the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Reagan’s diplomacy allowed Ivany to visit the land of his parents’ birth in 1990 as an adviser on the democratization of the Hungarian defense establishment. Even though had relatives in Hungary and spoke Hungarian at home, it was almost unfathomable that years later he would go as an American Army colonel to the country his parents had fled as the Soviet army approached.
During the last week of his month-long stay, he was able to have his father, mother, sister and wife Marianne join him. It was the first time in 45 years that his parents had seen their homeland.
Throughout his 34 years in the Army, Ivany said he never looked upon his service as a job, but rather a calling. The military, he said, taught him to determine and do the right thing.
“In order to do that, you have to have a spiritual foundation to your life,” he explained. “It’s more than material things in the world that truly make a life. I think that spiritual foundation has helped me a great deal and taught me perseverance.”
Ivany also credits his Catholic faith and his family for instilling in him the desire to do the right thing and to improve other people’s lives. West Point, where he later taught history and coached football, reinforced this — as did the Catholic chaplains he encountered and the intercession of those who prayed for him, he said.
Similarly, Wessels’ Catholic faith was a constant presence in his military life, which included service in Italy and Saudi Arabia. During his time as a commander, for example, his units always had chaplains, but not Catholic ones. He would attend the worship service and then seek out a Catholic Mass on his own.
“When I was a commander, they knew I was Catholic,” he said. “That’s what a Legate is. You live your faith, you talk your faith.”
Schoenle, who spent much of his career on nuclear Navy ships, said he has always had a strong sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence and would ask the Spirit to protect him, his fellow crew members and their vessel. Serving as a Eucharistic minister on board also helped him stay closer to his faith while away from home.
He experienced what may have been his greatest need for the Spirit’s protection in 1989 off the coast of Libya when two Libyan fighter jets went after two Navy F-14s during a training exercise over the Mediterranean. Schoenle’s cruiser, which was paired with the USS John F. Kennedy and armed with air-to-air missiles, was prepared to fire if necessary.
“We help protect the carrier by being able to shoot missiles at planes or other missiles,” Schoenle explained. “I was in charge of the main damage-control unit, standing by if there was any damage to the ship or casualties.”
After attempting to avoid the Libyans, U.S. pilots shot down the two MiG-23 fighter jets. Schoenle said the incident occurred near the end of a decade of tension between the U.S. and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
In part because of his own military experience, Schoenle — a member of Legatus’ board of governors and director of global trade services for Ford Motor Co. — knows the importance of praying for those in service. He urges Legates and others to intercede for them.
“They’re obviously in difficult situations combat-wise, but they’re under attack spiritually, too, because they’re often away from a support structure or parish.” Schoenle said Legates who are business owners can also help veterans or reservists by hiring them.
In addition, said Wessels, a Merrill Lynch wealth-management adviser, employers of reservists need to be aware of military requirements for weekend training and periodic deployments. He has worked on this issue through Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, which promotes cooperation and understanding between military reservists and their civilian employers. Wessels also helps the military as chairman of United Service Organization (USO) Georgia.
Ivany said Legates can assist active military by reaching out to those who live on bases and inviting those who qualify to join Legatus. He also urges Legates and others to write to active military personnel to thank them for their service.
“Those little things mean a lot,” he said, “by really being cognizant of the sacrifices they make.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.