France state

John Orofino, SF teacher who hid story of WWII heroism for decades, dies

John Orofino returned from combat in France in World War II with enough shrapnel in his body and disillusionment in his mind that he decided to join a monastery and escape the world he had seen .

A monk convinced him that he could do more good by being part of society than by leaving it, so he became an English teacher at Galileo High School in San Francisco.

Orofino never talked about the war in class, watched war movies, or participated in a parade of veterans. If not for a dinner guest at his West Portal home who found a medal in a case and pulled the story out of him, he would never have been awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration and one of the most distinguished in the world.

He received the award in 2007 at a ceremony attended by a color guard of French sailors aboard a French Navy frigate in San Francisco Bay.

Orofino also won the Silver Star for Valor, a Purple Heart, and seven other campaign medals, none of which were ever displayed, and most of which were never bothered to pick up. He died Aug. 3 at CMPC Van Ness from metastatic bladder cancer, his wife Peggy said. He was 98 years old.

“John was a beautiful soul,” she said. “If you knew him, he impacted your life.”

It wasn’t until they were married for 15 years that Peggy learned the extent of his heroism, and it was only because she typed up a statement that had been requested by the French government outlining the role which he starred in the desperate battle to liberate Thionville from the occupying German forces.

“I knew he had been injured in the war and had spent months recovering,” she said, “but I had no idea how bad the situation was.”

According to the document Peggy typed, Orofino was a 20-year-old sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division, a legendary paratrooper outfit known as the Screaming Eagles.

Three months after D-Day, the allies had left Normandy and were rolling through France under General George C. Patton. Orofino was part of a reconnaissance platoon sent 60 or 70 miles ahead of the front to probe the Germans. On September 1, 1944, Orofino was riding in a jeep with other officers when they found what they were looking for.

“It was quite a shootout,” Orofino told The Chronicle when he received the French award in 2007. “The lieutenant was shot, the staff sergeant was killed. I was gone.” Suddenly the senior officer, Orofino, took control of the scene, got the wounded soldiers into a Jeep to evacuate them, then held off the Germans with a machine gun while his platoon could retreat.

A German concussion hand grenade exploded above him, raining down nails and steel shards that pierced his skin. But he fought.

“I did a John Wayne,” he said in 2007.

Removed from the front, he was taken to a hospital in England where he was told he would never walk again and was forgetting to have children. He was placed in a cast and after four months in England arrived by hospital ship en route to a long recovery at a convalescent hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan.

“The shrapnel was too close to the heart to work,” said his brother Art Orofino. “Everything they had packed into the grenade kept coming out slowly. It was a handicap for him, but he never complained of pain.

John Battista Orofino was born on October 18, 1923 in Detroit, the eldest of five children. Her father, John Edward Orofino, worked in the trim department for the Ford Motor Co. Her mother, Sadie, was a homemaker.

As a child, he was such a voracious reader that his father allowed him to claim a room under the stairs at home as an office and library.

At Farmington High School, he played football and ice hockey, served as editor of the school newspaper, and was elected senior class president and valedictorian. He graduated in 1942 and was attending the University of Michigan when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. This motivated him to enlist in the army in 1943.

After the war, Orofino returned to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor on the GI Bill. He majored in English and minored in Philosophy. He began his teaching career in Detroit and was married with three young children when he felt the urge to move west to California.

He was hired by the San Francisco Unified School District and eventually was assigned to Galileo, the spectacular Spanish Colonial Revival campus overlooking the bay. He rose to the post of department head, overseeing a faculty of 10. He also worked in the district office to develop an approach to teaching English in all public schools in the city.

“John was a philosopher, so he wanted to show the district a framework for teaching English,” said Vince Gomez, a fellow teacher and friend of 62 years. “He was one of the brightest guys I’ve ever known and a great humanist.”

After finishing his day job at Galileo, he taught evenings at the district’s adult school. He also taught philosophy at San Francisco State University and parked cars on Saturdays at a Nob Hill garage.

“He was always working,” Peggy Orofino said, “and when he wasn’t working he was reading.”

She had been Peggy McCulloch as a student at Galileo but she had never had Orofino as a teacher. They met through a mutual friend after his divorce and married in 1990 in a ceremony at City Hall. That same year, Orofino retired from teaching after 33 years in the district, but he had another job lined up. All those extra years of work had gone into buying a three-unit rental property the Orofinos had purchased in Noe Valley.

He spent three days a week sweeping and watering the plants and hanging out in a workshop he kept downstairs.

“John was not a typical landlord,” said Amy Campos, who lived in the first-floor apartment for 10 years, during which time its owners never forgot a birthday or holiday. They always sent a card.

“Homeowner is a transactional term,” said Campos, who is chair of the interior design program at California College of the Arts. “John was a friend and a mentor. He had fabulous vision and great demeanor and was able to connect with many different types of people.

One of them was Dr. Sharad Jain, a staff physician at the VA Hospital, who treated Orofino for a variety of age-related illnesses. Jain said he enjoyed Orofino’s company so much that they started meeting for coffee in Noe Valley. After reading a newspaper article about Orofino’s Legion of Honor award, Jain asked him about it.

“It was central to his identity,” Dr. Jain said, “because once he opened up about it, he had clear memories of the situation and all the dying people and the people he helped save. It was fresh in his mind.

Orofino did not return to Europe until June 2010, when he was convinced to attend the annual D-Day tribute ceremony in Normandy in the company of Jérôme and Monique Marks du Belvédère, who had been guests of the dinner who had applied for the Legion of Honor prize. in the name of Orofino.

Orofino wore his medal for the first time and had the honor of laying the ceremonial wreath at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

Years later, Orofino finally got his other medals thanks to the efforts of representative Jackie Speier. The 10 medals are now together, securely closed in their cases, as he left them.

A celebration of life will be held at a later date. Survivors include his wife of 32 years, Peggy Orofino of San Francisco; daughter Holly Orofino-Gruys of Jackson, Amador County; son John Orofino of Honolulu, Anthony Orofino; and Art Orofino of Lavonia, Michigan.

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]