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Finding Comfort, Surrounded by Water and People

“If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them.” ~The Crow, written by James O’Barr, David J. Schow, and John Shirley, 1994

Featuring: Bruce G. Hetzel

Unassuming, Bruce walks in to the Y almost every day for aquacise or aqua therapy. Looking at this man, you would never know how big his heart is, because he’s not one to boast. Over the past few years as a lifeguard, I’ve been lucky enough to get to know Bruce, standing at the doors waiting for the New Pool to open. Thanksgiving and the holidays hold special meaning for Bruce, because they remind him of his wife.

Ellen and Bruce Hetzel, 2012

The way things often go for men, Bruce started coming to the Y because of his wife, Ellen. At the age of 67, Ellen didn’t know how to swim. It was something she always wanted to learn, so she started coming to aquacise classes in the morning and Bruce joined her. Ellen has always been, and still remains, Bruce’s inspiration and motivation to keep going. It’s fitting that Bruce ended up at the Y, surrounded by water and people: this environment is familiar to him, and it’s where we come in to this story…

As a 1st Class Petty Officer in the United States Navy, the water has always been in Bruce’s life. He was part of an advanced military training group called the Seabees. Part of his training included swimming several miles in the ocean every morning, and even a 5 mile swim in Narragansett Bay in November (without a wet suit!) Already you can see how tough and dedicated Bruce is. When he was deployed to Vietnam in the fall of 1964, he started working with the locals, teaching them how to build things. A year later, on November 1st, 1965, he was sent by Public Works to maintain the Navy bases in Saigon. This also happened to be the fateful day he met Ellen. Born in Canton, China, Ellen was then living in Saigon because she was working as head cashier for the Navy Exchange, due in large part to her proficiency with foreign languages, of which she spoke six. “I fell for her instantly,” Bruce recalled, “It was something I never expected…I always thought I’d marry a German girl!” Ellen didn’t give in that easily though. Bruce asked her out again and again for almost a month until she finally agreed. He took her out on their first date to the “cinema” on Thanksgiving. Six months later, he proposed (which she also refused at first!) Ellen’s parents weren’t too sure about Bruce, but Ellen was smart, brave and most importantly, in love. So, they got married in Vietnam before moving to the U.S., with Ellen bringing nothing more than a suitcase. Shortly after arriving, they bought a Mustang convertible and drove across country from San Francisco back to Bruce’s home in New Jersey, where they built their life and family together.

With a love for Ellen that was passionate and consuming, Bruce never expected to have to live a day without her. So when Ellen passed away unexpectedly in January 2013 of complications from heart surgery, Bruce’s heart also broke. After being married over 40 years, to suddenly have to live life without the person that had been by your side all that time was overwhelming. Ellen and Bruce had only been Y members for about 2 years when Ellen passed, but the support and kindness Bruce received was incredible. What struck Bruce the most was the sheer goodness of people from his aquacise class. Bruce reflected, “The people were always good…they asked how I was doing, and if I needed anything. They brought me trays of food, and some of the instructors even came to Ellen’s viewing.” These people are why Bruce keeps coming, even though it’s hard to come without Ellen. “I come almost every day, I don’t like being home alone all the time. Being in the water feels good, and just talking to people, it takes my mind off things,” Bruce said. Veteran support is also something that Bruce appreciates here at the Y: “It’s great that the Y offers the veterans’ breakfast and lunch every year. I met my friend Rick at aquacise, and now we sit together at the luncheon. It’s nice to be able to get together with everyone and to know we’re remembered and appreciated.” What Bruce is most thankful for is being able to talk about Ellen and keeping her memory alive, and taking his experience as a way to help comfort others. He became involved in grief counseling services for veterans, where he helps coach others through traumatic emotional events such as depression and loss.  Bruce would also like to go to Boston on one of the Y’s trips to go on a duck tour around the city, which he and Ellen had talked about but never got the chance to do.

-By: Tracy L. Nieradka