Norwich native in Ukraine: 'We are not leaving'
Fifty years ago, he was Wally Urban, a popular, athletic, rambunctious Norwich teenager still reeling and acting out after the unexpected death of his father when he was only 10. Today, he is the more serious and studious Walter Urban, an American citizen and U.S. Air Force veteran living in central Ukraine, where he met his Ukrainian wife and is teaching conversational English to adults there. He is vowing not to try to escape the war-torn eastern European nation, instead, planning to remain in his adopted homeland and fight "to the end" alongside his fellow countrymen if necessary.
Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are required to remain in the country to fight the Russians. As a 66-year-old American citizen, Urban could legally join hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Russian military onslaught. In fact, the U.S. Embassy and the American State Department have both urged him to evacuate. He chooses instead to stay with his wife, Larisa, and grown stepson, Misha, in their newly built apartment in the central Ukraine city of Dnipro. His rugged determination is inspired by brave and defiant Ukrainians who have stalled and frustrated the Russian invasion with spirited, and well-coordinated defense with military supply support from all over the world.
"I love the Ukrainian people, who are resourceful, resilient and brave," Urban said recently via email. "(Russian President Vladimir) Putin greatly miscalculated the resolve of these heroic Ukrainians. I actually love the Russian people, too, but despise their government and Putin. I believe Putin was counting on a divided west/NATO and a Ukrainian people that would either welcome him or surrender easily. Boy, did his miscalculate on all counts.
"But what is really scary is that now he is playing the nuclear card because he knows things are not going well for him at all," Urban continued. "And based on his recent extremely erratic behavior, he might be crazy enough to actually do it, and that could spell Armageddon, as you know."
He is a long way from his Allyn Avenue childhood home in the city's Thamesville section, where he was the youngest of three children (brother Steve and sister Debbie) of Walt and Edith Urban He attended West Thames Street and John B. Stanton elementary schools, Kelly Junior High, then Norwich Free Academy. His father had died from complications following a stroke, traumatizing the youngest child and setting off about five years of troubled misbehavior before he "finally got my stuff together in my senior year (at NFA)" when he met a cheerleader he wanted to impress. He took a heavy course load in his senior year, 1972-73, so he could graduate on time.
At the same time, he had worked his way up to a manager's job at Capehart, which paid what was then a handsome weekly salary of $307. Still, he recalls, he remained "unsettled," so he joined the Air Force, serving for 7 1/2 years, during which he traveled extensively around the country and the world.
"This is really when I fell in love with Europe and was to return many times over my lifetime," he said.
After his honorable discharge from the Air Force, he began a successful career in the financial services industry from which he had to take early retirement in 2001 following two heart attacks. After raising four daughters in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and, ultimately, being divorced from his first wife, he traveled extensively around the world. It was then in 2011 that he was in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk and met Larisa. "And the rest," he recalled, "is history."
While most of us have been riveted by American media coverage of the Russian invasion, Urban has been living it.
"Putin gave the false excuse that he was saving the Russian-speaking Ukrainian people, especially those in Donbass from neo-Nazi government and leaders, drug addicts and those committing ethnic genocide," Urban said. "None of those things were happening here and none of those things are true. So, Putin is either so detached from reality that he actually believes these lies or is just using them as an excuse to expand his territory of influence (more likely)."
Putin's claim of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian government is especially distorted, given that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. Zelenskyy himself has been a source of national pride and inspiration. He has courageously remained in the besieged capital of Kyiv, where he has appeared regularly on social media and television broadcasts urging on his constituents and appealing to the rest of the world for support and prayers. At one point early in the Russian invasion, he was offered safe passage by the United States military out of Kyiv. He flatly refused, saying: "The war is here. I need ammunition, not a ride."
Zelenskyy's is but one of many stories of brave Ukrainians who have risked or even given their lives in defense of their beloved homeland. This comes as no surprise to Urban and has even inspired him to stay.
"All the people we know all over Ukraine are nervous but remaining brave and defiant in the face of this horrible invasion," Urban said. "Even those who fall on either side of the political spectrum have totally come together (wish we would do this in U.S.) to deny Putin his prize. I've never witnessed this level of solidarity in my 66 years on this planet. Those around the world need to keep the enormous pressure up on Putin/Russia and his puppet country of Belarus. Only in that way can we defeat this Hitler-like tyrant.
"I was never intending on leaving Ukraine as I have repeatedly been warned to do by the embassy and the State Department," he concluded. "This is my home, and we are NOT leaving! I will stand with my Ukrainian friends and brothers to the end. Slava Ukraine!"
Godspeed to you, Walter Urban, and to the Ukrainian people who are an inspiration to the rest of the world. May you win this war and push back the Russian tyranny once and for all.
Bill Stanley, a former vice president at L+M Hospital, grew up in Norwich.