AUSTIN, Texas - Bill Derenberger, who turned 100 on July 26, grinned from ear to ear as he watched the laptop screen.
Not only was this his very first Zoom session, but it was also his very first time on a computer.
He didn't really need such electronic devices during his first 10 decades.
Derenberger's life and heart were full of other things: family, friends, dogs, neighbors, work, music, faith and, when his wife of 67 years, Elvina, died in 2011, many hours of working wood into more than 1,500 crosses, some of them distributed by his pastor to patients in hospitals.
During World War II, Derenberger, who grew up on a farm in West Virginia and who trained as a flight engineer at Del Valle Air Base outside Austin, manned some 70 missions that dropped Allied paratroopers over Europe.
As a bonus for his centennial celebration, the Paramount Theatre, where he and Elvina caught movies and musical acts during the 1940s, hung this message on its grand marquee on July 26: "Happy 100th Birthday, Bill Derenberger! We Know Heroes Are Real Because of You."
Derenberger has but one piece of advice about life.
"Love your neighbor," he says. "Before she died, Elvina would cook for the whole block and I'd give it away. I loved to give things away. I just love people."
World War II
Born one of four brothers on the banks of the Ohio River near Ravenswood, W.Va., Derenberger only knew farm life through his childhood. His mother and father, who descended from Scottish and German immigrants, divorced when he was 4 years old, and when his dad remarried, he went to live with his older brother in town at age 13.
"Dad didn't want to have anything to do with us," Derenberger recalls. "And I wanted a good job."
By age 18, he was working underneath the switching devices for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Columbus, Ohio. He joined the Army Air Force - its name was changed from Army Air Corps the year he joined in 1941 - when he turned 21.
At first, he trained in Sedalia, Mo.
"It was too cold in Missouri," Derenberger says. "We came directly to the Del Valle base. There was no fence around it and no paved runway, just gravel. The Air Force used old planes for training. Eventually, we flew in C-47s, which had been used to transport cargo, but were fitted for paratroopers with 12 jump seats on each side."
By Air Force custom, the flight engineer served as the "third seat" in the cockpit. The captain and the first officer filled the other two seats. Based outside London, Derenberger participated in the invasion of Normandy.
"We were in the 82nd Airborne Division," he says. "The 101st Division went out first. We got the shaft. They were ready for us. We were flying through flak and lost three-fourths of our planes. They got us good."
In fact, one of his planes turned black with the residue from anti-aircraft fire, and another returned to base with 56 bullet holes in the tail.
"We were bouncing all over the sky," he says. "One time, the captain told me to go up into the dome and look around. There was just one of our planes beside me and two behind. That was all of the 24."
A contented life
Six months before Flying Tech Sergeant Derenberger embarked for Europe, he met Elvina Kappler in front of the Yaring's Department Store on Congress Avenue north of West Fifth Street.
"She was so short, just 4-foot-7," he says. "She'd wait for me at the Driskill Hotel. A country girl from Giddings, she did housework. I was not the churchgoing type until we started dating. 'If you want to go with me,' she said, 'You gotta go to church.'"
The couple married on Jan. 9, 1944, at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in the tiny town of Fedor in Lee County, home to less than 100 people. The well-maintained church there was founded by Wends, a Slavic people from eastern Germany, in 1870. They had arrived from the nearby town of Serbin in the late 1850s.
Elvina and Bill also celebrated their 50th anniversary there.
At one point during the war, Bill was ordered overseas while the couple were traveling in Georgia.
"She had never traveled before," Derenberger says. "She didn't know how she was going to get back to Texas. Somebody told us, 'The Red Cross will get her back. Don't worry.'"
After the war in 1945, the couple purchased a little house in the Bouldin neighborhood for $4,500.
"We looked north," Derenberger says of the burgeoning postwar Austin suburbs north of Hyde Park and Rosedale. "And we looked at one in Menchaca that came with five acres. Elvina said, 'I come from the country. I don't want to move back to the country.'"
For the rest of his career, Derenberger drove a truck, making deliveries up and down Congress Avenue, but also all around the Austin area, until he retired in 1973. When he started out, "Oltorf Street was out in the country. Guadalupe Street led out into the cotton fields."
He almost missed a chance to enjoy his "happy wife and happy life." In 1947, he was diagnosed with melanoma. For decades, the medical community considered this aggressive form of skin cancer a death sentence.
"'You've got five months to live,' they told me," Derenberger says. "But they took one piece out, then took another piece out. And the doctor said, 'We're gonna see.' They took out some chest muscles, which made it hard to pick stuff up. It kind of messed me up."
Yet he thrived. His wife's death in 2011 interrupted a supremely contented life in South Austin.
"When she died, I was laying the bed, fussing at God about why he didn't take me first," he remembers. "My pastor said I should do something. So I made more than 1,500 crosses. Big ones and small ones. My pastor took the small ones to people in the hospital. That gave me something to do. I'd work on crosses 10 or 11 hours a day. But I had to quit when the arthritis in my hand got bad."
The Derenbergers had no children of their own, but they helped raise nephew Donnie Arldt and niece Donna Douglas.
Other family members and neighbors - Mike Pizinger, who lives on the same block as Derenberger and arranged the theater marquee treatment and our Zoom interview over his laptop - now help Bill out.
Since his last dog died, Derenberger has cherished short visits with neighborhood pets.
Derenberger: "I do love a good dog."
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