Lieutenant Colonel Gaston Norvell Connell Jr., of Phoenix, Arizona, passed peacefully from this earth on May 22, 2016. A dedicated father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, and uncle, Gaston lived and died surrounded by his adoring family. He joins Jean his beloved wife and the love of his life, who passed away in 1989.
Gaston’s life spanned the 20th and part of the 21st century. Born in Charleston, West Virginia on April 18, 1919, he spent his idyllic childhood helping his parents run Highgale Dairy farm and roaming the hills and woods of the West Virginia countryside with his dog Frisky. His childhood passions included the outdoors and radio shows such as the Lone Ranger. Gaston also loved any locomotive. First, he learned to drive the family milk truck at age of 8, later helping make milk deliveries along the country roads. His first West Virginia driver’s license—received at age 15—was “good for life.”
In adolescence, Gaston was fun-loving and mischievous. He was popular in school, especially with the girls. He and a friend flew an Aeronca Champion—a canvas and wooden airplane more popularly known as the “Champ”—around the Charleston area and even flew under the Kanawha River Bridge.
As Gaston grew older, he cultivated an interest in world events. Though his interest quickened as the world grew closer to war, it persisted throughout his life. Conscious of the ever-conflicted world, Gaston joined his high school ROTC to begin his military training.
Upon graduation from Charleston High School in 1937, Gaston matriculated at Marshall College in Huntington, West Virginia, where he studied Economics and continued his military training.
On December 7, 1941, Gaston and his family awoke to devastating news. The United States had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. He sat with his parents, riveted to the radio as the destruction unfolded. Gaston enlisted in the United States Army on December 8, 1941, the very next day.
Gaston reported for duty at Fort Benning, Georgia in January 1942, where he completed officer training. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, and after three more months of training was sent to Fort Huachaca in Arizona to train new recruits. Gaston remained at Huachuca for one year. During that year he met Jean Frances Townley, a University of Arizona co-ed, on a blind double-date. They quickly fell in love, as memorialized in dozens of love letters written throughout the war.
As World War II progressed, Gaston grew impatient training recruits. He wanted to be part of the action, and so he volunteered for jump school at Fort Benning. The Airborne were the elite of the army, and only forty percent of volunteers completed the rigorous training. Gaston qualified in parachute infantry, becoming a member of that elite group, only to once again become a training officer.
Gaston and Jean were married at Fort Benning, Georgia on November 6, 1943. In January 1944, his wish to “join the action” was finally granted. The army shipped him overseas as a member of the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the first parachute infantry division in U.S. Army history. He first served in North Africa, in Naples and Rome; and on the beaches of Southern France. Gaston was a First Lieutenant and led his squad on patrols to draw fire from the German forces.
As the war progressed, Gaston was involved in combat in France. In December 1944, his unit was stationed outside of Paris when the Battle of the Bulge began. His unit was convoyed to Belgium, where he saw sustained combat until late January 1945. In early February, the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment was disbanded. Out of 750, only fifty-three men remained standing, including seven officers. Gaston was transferred to the 101st Airborne.
The 101st Airborne fought their way into Germany, and at the end of the war Gaston was stationed in Austria at Berchtesgaden, home to Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat. His unit received a Presidential Citation and was designated as General Eisenhower’s honor guard.
In August 1945, Gaston was offered two choices: he could remain in Germany for an additional two years, or return to the United States for thirty days leave before a transfer to the Pacific War. He chose the latter, gambling that Japan would surrender before he got home.
In November 1945, Gaston returned home to his wife Jean. He picked up his life in Tucson, Arizona, completing his degree in Economics at the University of Arizona. He then obtained his Pharmacy degree as a member of the second graduating class of the UA College of Pharmacy. Gaston and Jean welcomed their first child, Patrick, in 1947.
After returning home in late 1945, Gaston transferred to the 82nd Airborne. He was soon promoted to Captain. He later served in the Arizona National Guard, being promoted to Major, and finally Lieutenant Colonel in 1960. He retired from the military in 1964.
After Gaston received his Pharmacy degree and license in 1953, the growing family moved to Phoenix. He worked as a pharmacist for Ryan-Evans, a small family-owned pharmacy. Gaston and Jean’s family grew over the next years, as did the city of Phoenix.
Even after Gaston’s own children were grown, his family involvement only increased. When his daughter Susan returned to school and began her own career as a teacher, he gratefully jumped in to help raise his grandchildren Jay and Laura. Gaston and Jean enjoyed their increasingly short time together. They travelled throughout Europe until Jean grew progressively more ill and debilitated. Gaston dedicated himself to her care until she died in 1989.
The loss of his life partner and the accompanying ache was only assuaged by helping his grown children raise their own. He found new direction to his life—driving his grandchildren to school; bringing them lunch; and watching hours of dance, gymnastics and pole-vaulting practices. He became affectionately known as “Grandpie” to all he met. He attended graduations, birthday parties, and athletic events up until his last week of life. He hauled kids to endless orthodontist appointments, choir practices, and friends’ houses.
Gaston was preceded in death by one great-grandchild, Hazel. He is survived by his children Patrick, Cathleen, Susan, Janice, Mary, and Barbara; his grandchildren Jay, Melissa, Laura, Angela, Anna, Julie, and Sarah; and his great-grandchildren Ophelia, Rowan, and Brody. He taught us all unconditional love, infinite patience, appreciation for the ordinary—and extraordinary—events in life.
A viewing will take place on Thursday, May 26, 2016 from 6:00 pm–8:00 pm at Hansen Mortuary, 8314 North 7th Street in Phoenix 85020. A funeral service will be held 10:00 am Friday, May 27, 2016 at Hansen Mortuary, followed by a burial at St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, 2033 N. 48th Street, Phoenix 85008.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Ryan House Hospice of the Valley at www.ryanhouse.org, or 110 West Merrell Street, Phoenix, AZ 85013, in Gaston’s name and remembrance.Print Obituary & Condolences