Merle Howard Rasmus was more than a military man. He was a ladies’ man, in a dignified way, said stepdaughter Connie Tolleson.
“He treated women with a great deal of respect,” Tolleson said. “If men acted like that, we wouldn’t be having the kind of problems we have.”
The Grass Valley veterans community continues to mourn the mid-May death of Merle Howard Rasmus, a man who participated in three wars over the course of a 22-year military career. He was 94.
Born July 15, 1926, to Dorothy Margaret Rasmus and Cecil Baldwin, Merle Rasmus lived on a farm in Flossmore, Illinois, with his mother, stepfather Nathan Sypult, and sister Rosetta until the age of 8.
“He had a very rough childhood,” said Rita Blake, Rasmus’ fiancée at the time of his death.
According to stepdaughter Tolleson, Rasmus returned to his family from Glenwood Manual Training School at 13 years old after his stepfather died. At 17, Rasmus joined the Navy on Aug. 23, 1943.
Rasmus fought in Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines during World War II.
Rasmus served on a hospital ship, the USS Haven in the Korean War, which would eventually transport American prisoners of war back to the states. In the 1950s, the same ship — with Rasmus on board — collected 1,000 French Foreign Legion POWs from Vietnam to return to France.
Rasmus himself went to Saigon, Vietnam, to run an enlisted and officers’ mess hall/bar.
On July 9, 1966, Rasmus retired at the rank of chief petty officer.
Rasmus filled the 55 years of civilian life that followed with adventures, Tolleson said.
He became a cook, a butcher, a salesman and a businessman, spending a number of years managing three bars in the Los Angeles area.
Blake said although Rasmus was quiet about his childhood family, his charisma and generosity strengthened and diversified the family he chose for himself in his adult life.
Tolleson said Rasmus met her mother, Elizabeth Costanzo, in the 1970s at a bar in Southern California. Eventually the two married and Rasmus offered the kind of support their fractured family unit was lacking. Tolleson said her birth father offered little support to her in her adolescence.
“(Rasmus) re-parented me in my early 20s,” Tolleson said. “I saw my mother really happy for the first time in my life.”
Tolleson, 75, said Rasmus was her adopted father for over 50 years.
Tolleson said when her mother died in 1992, she remained close with Rasmus.
“He was just the most wonderful father,” Tolleson explained. “He’s just such a solid human being, when you were with him he made you feel like everything is OK.”
According to Tolleson, Rasmus married Sally Kelly Langes afterward.
Tolleson said her father was a ladies’ man, in the way that he dignified the experience of those around him with authentic engagement.
After Langes’ death, Rasmus was disinclined to date around his community because he did not want to “develop a reputation.”
Even so, Tolleson said when she visited Rasmus for his 93rd birthday, it was him and eight women at the table.
Blake, Rasmus’ fiancée at the time of his death, said women in the Hilltop Commons community frequently approached Rasmus during meal times to offer a kiss on the head or the cheek.
“I never knew women that went around kissing guys like that, but he had a crazy life, so I thought he might have been used to it,” Blake said.
Blake and Rasmus shared their first kiss on New Year’s Day 2020. The pair moved into Eskaton Village from Hilltop in November to save money.
Blake said she liked Rasmus’ inquiring and open mind, his steadfast nature and reliable optimism.
Blake said Rasmus, although a charmer, was by no means a silent type.
“He did talk a lot — he did a lot of thinking and had a wonderful brain and memory,” Blake said. “I don’t know how it was possible, but I never heard him say anything negative.”
“He was a very honest, dear, sweet man,“ Blake said.
Tolleson said her stepfather will be interred today at the Sacramento National Military Cemetery at Dixon.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at [email protected]