Photograph by Mike Mcgregor
Alex Yawor leans in to study his nearly finished portrait of a man in uniform. He picks up a paintbrush and, resting an arm against a maulstick, carefully fills in a badge on the soldier’s chest. As he does so, he quietly asks, “Why did you have to die?”
The old man thinks about this a lot. Almost every day for the past seven years, he has sat behind a wooden easel in his daughter’s basement-turned-studio in Hopewell Township, Pennsylvania, and painted portraits of servicemen and -women who will never see the final product. He then frames, boxes, and ships the paintings to the families, free of charge.
On a certain level, Alex can relate to those he paints. A World War II Marine veteran himself, Alex fought in the brutal battles of Saipan, Tinian, Kwajalein, and Iwo Jima. But ask him about it and he’ll demure. “I don’t like to talk about my service,” he says.
Alex’s postwar transition was difficult. “I didn’t leave the house for a year,” he says. Itching to get his mind off the war, he took up painting.
Now more than 30 years into his retirement from a local steel mill, the 93-year-old uses his talent to paint portraits of fallen military heroes, most of whom were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. To date, he has completed 111 of the 16-by-20-inch portraits based on photos parents have sent him. His hands aren’t as steady as they used to be, and many of his subjects’ uniforms have intricate details, so each painting takes about a week to finish.
It’s an emotional pastime for Alex. “I cry a lot while I’m painting,” he says. He also talks to the men and women, greeting fellow Marines with a rousing “Semper fi!”
Alex began the project in 2009, after reading a news clip about a woman who had done something similar. To find contact information for parents who might want portraits, he reached out to veterans’ groups and the American Gold Star Mothers, an organization for mothers who have lost military sons and daughters.
“I hung up the phone with Alex thinking I had just received the best New Year’s present since 1988,” says Norma Luther, a former president of the American Gold Star Mothers. Norma’s son, Army Captain Glen P. Adams Jr., was killed in 1988 in a helicopter accident in Germany. Glen, whom Norma remembers for his warm smile and laugh, “a soldier of soldiers,” was 27. Alex painted a portrait of him for Norma.
Parents often write Alex heartfelt notes. One mother told him how, after she hung the portrait in her son’s old bedroom, she would walk in and it would feel as though he was still there.
“When you first get the painting, you just want to sit and cry for about two hours,” says Norma, who keeps the portrait of her son displayed as a focal point in her living room, above a sword and scabbard Glen gifted to her and his father upon his graduation from West Point. “I cannot put into words the comfort it has been to have his picture smiling at me every day.”
Reactions like that make the work feel like a calling. “I believe certain people were put on this earth for a reason,” Alex says. “If I live to be 100 and am able to paint, then I’ll paint for the parents who want portraits.”
For now, Alex will rinse his brushes and finish up for the day. “Good night,” he’ll say to the man on the canvas.
Once it’s dry, he’ll ship the portrait to another family. Or, as Alex says, “send him home.”