Family Ties: A hero's story

Talk of the Walk - Winter 2016

It was 1944. Andy Sterrett was just a 20-year-old U.S. soldier from Pittsburgh, Pa., crouched in a foxhole near a town called Luneville, in the eastern Lorraine region of France. He was with a fellow soldier, and the two were preparing to advance the next day. Aside from the German propaganda being thundered at them from loudspeakers, the day had been relatively peaceful. But when Sterrett left his position in search of food, the shells came.

The memories that Sterrett has about the days that followed the violence come piecemeal and from the stories told to him. He had been dragged to safety by his fellow soldiers. He had nearly bled to death. He had been evacuated. What he does remember is waking up. And he remembers a Red Cross volunteer offering to write a letter home for him. Sterrett’s left arm had nearly been blown off, and doctors couldn’t save it. After returning to the States, he wore a grey glove to cover his artificial hand. That glove brought him to his first wife, Betts, who inquired about it one day at a trolley stop.

Andy Sterrett is a war hero. He also has degrees from Carnegie Mellon and from Pitt. And he’s Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Denison, where he taught for 37 years. When I met him at his then-home on Granger Street in Granville last year, he was sitting at his dining room table with a file folder stretched out in front of him. He was sifting through stacks of papers at the table with one hand, weeping over the death of his second wife, Kaarina, when her name cropped up in conversation (Betts died in 1992.) Sterrett had invited me over to tell me about one of his favorite students—a young man named Dennis Eneanya ’76. The image of Sterrett at that table came back to me recently when I heard he would be awarded the French Legion d’ Honneur (Legion of Honor), for his valor and sacrifice in France during the war. The award ceremony took place in Swasey Chapel in November.

But on that spring day months ago at Sterrett’s dining room table, there was no pomp and circumstance. Just a man telling a stranger about a young boy who came to Denison, sight unseen, from Nigeria. A boy who had lost his father to congestive heart failure just weeks before he would begin classes on the Hill. A boy who would become like a son to Sterrett.

Sterrett still remembers the letter he received from Eneanya that summer of 1973. He told the Sterretts—who would become his host family—about his father’s death, and about his hope to find a father figure in America to guide him through his education. Eneanya was looking for a mentor— and that’s just what he found in the young math professor, who remembered himself at roughly Eneanya’s age, crouched in a foxhole in an unfamiliar country.

Throughout his time in Granville, Eneanya and the Sterretts grew to be a family. Betts and Andy would invite Eneanya and his friends to the house on Sundays for dinner. Eneanya would occasionally make Nigerian meals for his host parents. And he studied hard, with Sterrett by his side, cheering him on. Eneanya went on to earn a Ph.D. in pharmacology from Ohio State, and an M.D. from the University of Missouri’s school of medicine. In 1997 be was certified to practice internal medicine. By 2000, he was certified to practice nephrology. He married. Had children of his own. But he never lost touch with Sterrett.

At the dining room table, Sterrett talked about him as if he really were his son. He displayed Eneanya’s résumé with pride. Then he followed that résumé with the résumés of Eneanya’s children—three of whom became doctors themselves.

I’m sure Sterrett is incredibly proud of the honor he received from France, but he’s just as proud to have mentored Eneanya as if he were his own. Those are the kinds of connections that seem to happen here on the Hill—and though I see them happen all the time among faculty, staff, and students, there was something about Sterrett’s story that showed how strong and lasting those connections can be.

Most folks around town are congratulating Sterrett for the French Legion d’ Honneur. They either attended the ceremony or heard about it—and about the tears of thanks shed by the French Consul Anne Cappel, who spoke at the event. But when I think of Sterrett, I can’t help but think of another honor he received for his contribution to the education and life of a nervous boy traveling to a college and a country he had never seen before. You see, years after he graduated, Eneanya had a son. His full name is Euchenna “Andrew” Eneanya.

Published December 2016