TIGARD — On a January Saturday morning, a simple memorial service took place at a local funeral chapel. Wally Groce had finally, definitively, found a home.
Groce, 90, died in November after a long bout with prostate cancer.
Born in Plentywood, Mont., he grew up with his four siblings at St. Thomas Orphanage in Great Falls, Mont. Their mother had a nervous breakdown and their father, an Italian immigrant ranch worker, could not take care of them. Groce never expressed bitterness over being an orphan.
He and his brothers and sisters referred to the Providence Sisters who ran St. Thomas as their "40 mothers in uniform." Townspeople called the orphans "Tommies."
The nuns patched Groce's clothes, put soles on his shoes and begged in the streets of Great Falls in order to feed the youngsters. The government did not subsidize the efforts.
The education at St. Thomas was rigorous. Groce and his siblings say they graduated from high school with levels of knowledge suitable to a college sophomore.
Groce came to Portland after graduation, shortly before World War II. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Force. At 21, Groce became a top gun. He flew many missions in a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter over Europe. Holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Groce is credited with shooting down the first jet fighter, which the Germans had launched near war's end. He became a captain in a squadron that downed more than 1,000 enemy plans. Groce always said that he never had fear when under enemy fire, because he knew the nuns at St. Thomas were praying overtime for him.
"The nuns taught them how to face life, how to face death, never to fear," says Mary Jane Groce, his sister-in-law.
At the funeral, family displayed the helmet and uniform Groce wore 70 years before his death.
After the war, he completed a business degree at the University of Portland. In 1950 he went to work for E.F. Houghton, selling industrial chemicals in Oregon and Washington.
In 1955 he married Patricia Webb. They built a home on Bull Mountain in Tigard where he lived for many years and raised horses for showing. Between them they had six children – Jeffrey, Jeri, Patrick, Kelle, Yvonne, and Michael. He was widowed in 1977.
In 1979 he married Trula Beadnell, also a widow, who had two sons and a daughter – Rick, Steve, and Denise. Wally retired in 1985 and enjoyed many winters in Arizona with Trula as "snowbirds." In 2000 they downsized and moved to the King City area.
Groce left the church for a time, but came back after the Second Vatican Council. He went through classes to learn about changes in Catholicism and became a member of St. Anthony Parish in Tigard. When he was ill at the end of his life, parishioners regularly brought him Communion. He would pray the rosary with a relative, mouthing the prayers after his voice failed.
"He was very devout," his sister-in-law explains.
Groce is survived by his wife of 33 years, six children, three stepchildren and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.