At eulogies, it’s customary to say nice things about the departed and how great of an influence they were on our lives, and maybe later, at the reception, less savory stories from a wild past may arise. But for A.J., there is nothing else to say except nice things, exceptional things – because that’s all he was. It’s hard to put into words what “Papa” meant to me and my family. He was a truly humble, loving, strong man; who lived for those around him more than himself. That’s who he was and every story about A.J. has a streak of this in it.
He lived a grand life, which began in Detroit in 1921. He was one of five children, born to Italian immigrant parents, on the poor side of town, but he was always surrounded by love. By the time A.J. graduated high school, he had lost his mother and several siblings to illness. He was an outstanding student and while he waited to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he worked factory jobs alongside his father in the heyday of Detroit’s automobile boom. He went off to The War in 1943, undergoing rigorous training to be a B-17 pilot.
During his service in WWII, A.J. flew 35 successful missions, three on D-Day alone. He never lost an aircraft or suffered a casualty to his crew. This was something he was always proud of, but never boasted about. That’s how my grandfather was.
He had a million great stories, but he always kept them under his hat, never bragging, but he had all the right to do so, especially after we heard this particular story.
One day while flying from their base in Kimbolton, England, a general decided to join my grandfather and his crew for that day’s mission. A.J. and his boys were a tight group, highly efficient at their job and I assume having a general on board was an honor to them but nothing to get tense about. They had a job to do and they were going to do it, regardless of who was tagging along.
They got into a scrape with enemy fire on their way out, but carried on and made it to their target site. They dropped their bombs and turned back for home, but not before getting shot up a few more times. They lost one engine in the fray and were still far from home. They ran into more enemy fire, and dropped a second of their four engines. The general was squirming by now, but A.J. remained focused, even after losing power to the third engine. They were low on fuel and shot up pretty bad with still a ways to go before they got back to base.
It was about this time the general said to A.J., white knuckles clinching his seatbelt, “Don’t you think it’s time we get out of here?” The thought never crossed A.J.’s mind, and he turned his head to the side, his steely gaze on the general now, and said, “You’re more than welcome to jump sir. I’ll have one of my boys open the side door for you, but I intend to take this plane back home.” A.J. turned his head back and resumed the flight – and the general sat back into his chair.
They did indeed get back home all right, exhausted but in one piece as always. A.J was woken up only a few hours later – to test fly the plane after the mechanics had repaired the engines and bullet holes. He flew it; it was good; and he racked up a couple more hours of sleep before being woken up again. It was time for another mission.
A.J. was strong enough to get the job done and he made sure he took care of those around him. That’s what he did that day and that’s what he did his whole life.
He returned to the States and completed his service as a test pilot in Amarillo, Texas. It was here he met his future wife Anne Troth. They soon fell in love, and married on August 14, 1946. They attended college together at LSU in Baton Rouge, and moved up to Casper in 1949. They would be married for sixty years, before Annie’s passing in 2006.
They had three children, Tom, Elree and Valarie, and raised them in their beloved home of 35 years on Milton Avenue. It was a sanctuary for family and friends to gather and enjoy each other’s company. Everyone remembers those fabulous backyard parties and tradition still goes on. Papa was out there enjoying himself just this past summer.
A.J. began his professional career at Casper National Bank and later with Lee Townsend in a private insurance company. He continued to fly planes recreationally and as a private pilot for the Dutch Warner Airline Co.. A.J. later established his long-running and well-known accounting and real estate firm: “A.J. Pettrini & Co.”
In 1960, he purchased several acres in the mountains outside of Pinedale, Wyo. and built a magnificent cabin that continues to be a cherished family destination. In his typical generous nature, A.J. first helped build his neighbor’s cabin, who co-invested in the land, before beginning work on his own property. Simply knows as “The Cabin,” we travel there often to for great family trips.
In life, A.J. was a renaissance man, a go-getter. He was always working on projects. Us grandkids nicknamed him “Do” because he was always doing something. He had friends everywhere he went, from the Petroleum Club to Paradise Valley Country Club to happy hour at Johnny O’s. He was a friend to everyone and they knew he would always lend a hand.
It was his strong spirit, his passion for life, his perpetual smile that lead him to living 94 years. His life story really is astonishing. He only spent a few days in the hospital his whole life. He was born on the family kitchen table, had his tonsils removed at home and he hardly got a scratch in the war. He was 88 years old when he finally spent a night in a hospital.
A.J. instilled a passion for nature and flying in his son Tom, who is an accomplished pilot and outdoorsman himself. Papa also helped his first daughter Elree, and her husband Kelvin Huber, build a house on their ranch along the North Platte, called “The Nickel.” It was another treasured family estate, home to countless get-togethers. On November 10, 1988, Elree passed away after a long fight with leukemia.
Valarie White is A.J.’s youngest child, who lived in Casper with her parents their whole lives. She moved into the Milton house, with a family of her own, when A.J. and Annie moved into their last house on Lind Avenue. Valarie took on A.J.’s passion for work and family, being a successful businesswoman and mother, and closely caring for her parents for many years.
But for all his accomplishments and passions, A.J.’s true love was his wife. I have never seen a man so smitten, so devoted to a woman like he was. The blissful look on his face in every single photo of them together is amazing. He cared for her at their home in her later years, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He was devastated when she died. She was his life, and the strength he showed to carry on for the last ten years without her was profound.
We find comfort in knowing that Papa is with Annie and his daughter now. They have been waiting in heaven for a long time – and now their circle has grown. We know we’ll join them one day, but for now, life has changed for us. We’ll miss him dearly. He was a sweet, sweet man.
It was a full life. It was a beautiful life Papa had. He has touched the lives of everyone here. He was a giant figure in my life. It felt like he would live forever. There is an emptiness I feel when I think about him being gone, him not being there to call and talk with. He’s gone, but that’s part of life. That’s how life ends. It’s never easy, but what better way to go than with family surrounding you in this world as you depart, and your wife and more family waiting for you on the other side.
At the end of his life, A.J. himself was a lot like his B-17 with only one engine still going. He didn’t have much power left, so he brought it in fast, in the company of those he cared about the most – even more than himself. He took care of his responsibilities, he did a miraculous job -and when he was done – he went home to find his wife.
We all love you Papa.