Originally Published: September 1, 2012 12:01 a.m.
When John Reyna Tapia passed away on Tuesday, Prescott lost a man who was a warrior, poet, scholar, and strove all his days to quietly be of service to other veterans.
Tapia, 90, died after surgery at Banner Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, said Alfonso Santillan, a close friend of the family.
"John called me the night before he died, and he just wanted to talk," another close friend, Wally Presmyk, said. "I always considered him my brother."
Presmyk and Tapia met for breakfast every Tuesday, had both been in the Civilian Conservation Corps, served in World War II and the Korean War, grew up in similar situations, and Tapia had served with the same unit Presmyk's grandson had.
"John was a fun guy to be around, it didn't take much to make him laugh, and I'll miss his laughter," Presmyk said.
Tapia was born in 1922 in Ajo, Ariz., and his niece, Emily Vansant, remembered growing up with her favorite uncle.
"There was a big hole near the old house, and when it rained the whole neighborhood would come over and we'd go swimming in it," Vansant said. "One time after it rained, John got in a big galvanized tub with a paddle and he sank to the bottom. He must have been in high school. I was really little back then, and he made me laugh."
Tapia married Bertha, his elementary school sweetheart, in 1942, and joined the Army as a rifleman that same year.
"He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and he fought SS troops, the toughest troop units in Germany," said Hugh Branigan, a friend and fellow member of the local Military Order of the Purple Heart. "He was awarded three purple hearts in the second World War, and four purple hearts in Korea."
After finishing his tour of duty, Tapia earned his bachelor's degree from West Virginia State College, then served in the Arizona National Guard, organizing a unit in Ajo and recruiting 60 men in a month, said Ildefonso Tercero, who was inducted into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame with Tapia in 2005.
Tapia helped many through his work with the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and as a volunteer at the Bob Stump Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Prescott, Tercero said.
Tapia was also a past commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart organization in Prescott, named the Maj. John R. Tapia Ph. D. Chapter 608 in his honor.
In a 2003 Courier story about local Korean War veterans, Army Col. William M. Rodgers wrote that "Tapia served as a platoon leader in "B" Company on the 70th Tank Battalion, at the time I assumed command, 10 July 1950, in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and continued to serve as such until evacuated from Korea for wounds, 2 November 1950. Although wounded at least four times between 13 August and 2 November 1950, he repeatedly returned to duty although not released by medical authorities. Final evacuation of Lt. Tapia was only successful when he was no longer capable of walking."
Vansant said the whole family was proud of Tapia.
"He was a hero, but he never thought of himself as a hero," Vansant said. "He was so down to earth."
Tapia's niece, Irene Daniel Johnson, said when she was growing up there was a photo of Tapia in his dress uniform with Bertha beside him on the wall of her home.
"That's the sustaining image I have of him," said Johnson. "We grew up poor, and it made me proud to be an American, a Mexican-American, and I felt like we had a stake in this country."
After retiring from the Army, Tapia completed his juris doctor at Blackstone School of Law, was an attorney, and earned his master's and Ph.D. from University of Utah.
When Johnson graduated college and prepared for law school, Tapia sent her his law books.
"The juxtaposition of him being a true warrior and also being a poet and Ph. D. shows that life was an endless discovery for him," Johnson said.
In 1982, Tapia retired as a professor of foreign languages at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., after teaching at many colleges, and publishing poetry and books about Hispanic folklore in English and Spanish.
"Whenever he spoke, all 500 people in the room would stop what they were doing and listen," Branigan said. "Yet he was a very modest man, and few heard John raise his voice."