By Danielle DeSimone
On an evening in 1941, the dance hall of a hotel in Chicago was bustling. The sound of music and the laughter of service members, USO hostesses and guests filled the room during a traditional World War II-era USO dance.
It was on this night that Norm and Maxine Maynard would meet and become inseparable. Little did they know that that in two months, Norm would be deployed to the front lines of France – or that 80 years later, their story would come full circle as their son, Gene, became a volunteer at the very organization that had brought them together.
The USO Dance That Brought Together a Service Member and His Future Wife
Gene Maynard credited the USO and a series of fortunate events that led to his parents meeting in Chicago in 1941. Gene recalled that his mother Maxine was from a small town in Iowa and very shy. Normally, she would have never attended a social event like a USO dance, but she was visiting friends in Chicago at the time, and they had encouraged her to come along.
That fateful night, Maxine met Norm, a combat engineer who had enlisted in the U.S. Army just a few months prior at the age of 23. The pair instantly hit it off and began a whirlwind romance.
Despite their hopes for a happy life together, their future as a couple wasn’t guaranteed – two months after the USO dance, Norm was deployed to France. He arrived on Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 10, 1944, just six days after D-Day.
Norm and his unit would make their way through France, attacking German-occupied strongholds and coming under fire themselves. Norm had several close calls while serving in combat for a full year, including one instance in which he was shot in the head – but miraculously survived.
Meanwhile, Maxine worked as a secretary back home. Throughout Norm’s deployment, the two wrote to each other almost every day, leaving behind hundreds of letters and even some photos from their time apart.
Gene noted how important it was for service members to be able to connect with loved ones through letter-writing during World War II.
“Those soldiers really looked forward to just getting a little private time and checking in with home somehow … because there was no internet. You couldn’t really use the telephone. It was all by letters, you know – so different from now.”
When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Norm continued to serve in Paris. Then, Norm’s unit was notified that they were about to be deployed to Japan, where the war in the Pacific theater raged on. Entering the fray in Japan would have meant more time apart from Maxine – and more risk of danger.
Then, just before they were set to depart, Japan surrendered – it was V-J Day and World War II was officially over. Twelve days later, Norm was on a flight back to the United States. His unit first landed in New Jersey and Norm quickly got in the long line of soldiers waiting to use the payphone to call their loved ones.
When it was finally his turn for the phone, Norm immediately called Maxine to let her know he was finally home – and to ask her to marry him. She said yes.
A Full Circle USO Story
Nearly 80 years later, Norm and Maxine’s son, Gene, chose to volunteer for the USO.
Gene says his motivation to volunteer was partly because he wanted to make a direct impact through one-on-one interactions with others and partly because he remembered the story of how his parents met. He began volunteering for the USO O’Hare Terminal 3 Center, a USO airport lounge located inside Chicago O’Hare International Airport, in 2019. In his first year, he completed 100 hours of volunteering.
Gene explained that as a volunteer, there is no greater joy than being able to provide a traveling military family with a place to relax and recharge before the next leg of their journey.
“Then, when they leave, you actually made an impact on their life,” Gene said. “You actually helped them, even though I’m not giving them anything except rest, you’re still helping them.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily suspended some USO center operations, Gene was volunteering at the USO airport lounge twice a week, covering the morning shifts on the weekends. He especially enjoyed welcoming members of the military community into the center and noted that a crucial part of the USO’s role at this location was offering support to Navy bootcamp graduates and their families.
“A lot of sailors come through the USO and O'Hare because of Great Lakes training,” Gene said, referring to the more than 40,000 Navy recruits who attend Recruit Training Command (RTC) in Great Lakes, Illinois, each year.
“So, we see a lot of really fresh-face youngsters that have really no real idea what they’re getting into until they get to bootcamp.”
For Gene, regardless of whether the visiting service member is a young Navy recruit or an experienced member of one of the other military branches that travel through O’Hare, his treatment of them is the same.
“You just treat people with respect when they come [into the center],” Gene said. “If you’re just nice to people and you just pass it on, you make the world a little better somehow.”
Gene’s story of giving back to the military and their families is truly full circle. His father was honorably discharged upon his return to the United States, and after he and Maxine married, they settled down in Chicago. The legacy of Norm’s service and the love that prevailed throughout a war is carried on by Gene and his other family members even today.
“If it wasn’t for the USO, my parents never would’ve met. I wouldn’t be here. That’s really the full circle,” Gene said.
“So, when I go into the USO to volunteer, I know he’s with me,” Gene said, referring to his father. “And I really truly, always think he’s kind of silently proud that I [volunteer for the USO].”
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