Robert Wallin was 17 years old and an Eagle Scout when he and a high school friend signed up with the Navy near the end of World War II.
Wallin, who died Aug. 19 at age 93, served as a seaman and gunner’s mate, helping load and fire the guns on the USS Bennington and USS Salerno Bay aircraft carriers in the Pacific. He always called himself one of the luckiest veterans in the war, said his daughter Mary Ellen Dalman. That’s because he was heading to invade the Japanese mainland when instead the atomic bombs were dropped and the war ended.
“He was always thankful to Harry Truman for making the decision to drop the bombs,” said his son Craig Wallin.
With the war over, Wallin became part of an occupying force rather than an invading one. His job was to help process the discharges of other soldiers. After he was accepted to the University of Minnesota, Wallin “played a little trick” on the Navy, Craig Wallin said. He slyly moved his own name to the top of the discharge list and came home to enroll at the U.
He majored in forest products marketing and made lifelong friends at his fraternity. After graduating, he married Mary Catherine Hawley of Shawano, Wis., and took a job at United States Plywood Corp. in Minnetonka, where he remained his entire career. The 1950s and ’60s were the perfect time for an ambitious young family man to be working in forestry and lumber, Dalman said.
“All those new homes were being built,” she said.
Wallin built one of his family’s first homes, near Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, almost by himself, with only the help of two Swedes he hired who spoke no English, Craig Wallin said. He liked to boast about it later in life, Craig said, because it cost about $14,000 to build, lot included. It recently sold for more than $300,000.
He rose through the ranks at U.S. Plywood and moved his family to Minnetonka. He was offered promotions to go work at the company’s East Coast headquarters but turned them down so he could keep his family in Minnesota.
Wallin was an active outdoorsman, often cruising Lake Minnetonka with his family and fishing the state’s great walleye lakes every summer and fall with his sons. He was an alpine skier and an excellent bird hunter, Craig Wallin said. He would make difficult shots look easy, taking down distant pheasants with his smaller 20-gauge shotgun, shots his sons wouldn’t even try to take with their more powerful 12-gauges.
Above all, he was a gentleman in every sense of the word, Craig said. His work ethic was evident throughout his life, especially in his dedication to volunteer work, Dalman said.
Wallen did outreach work for the homeless at St. Olaf Catholic Church downtown, helping to pick up furniture or anything that could be sold for or given to people who were trying to establish their homes. A few times a week he would help serve meals at Sharing and Caring Hands in Minneapolis.
“He was just such a hard worker,” Dalman said.
Wallin remained lifelong friends with those he met in his Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity at the U. They’ve all since died, Craig said. Wallin was the last of the “Phi Sigs” standing, as the generation that saw the country through World War II passes.
“As you go through life you fail to recognize that this is a great man you’re living with,” Craig Wallin said. “But he really was a giant.”
Wallin is survived by his four children, Craig, Mary Ellen, Catherine “Kate” and Joseph Wallin; and eight grandchildren. A service will be held at Fort Snelling National Cemetery at 10 a.m. Sept. 3.
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