Since 2008, SC-CARES has been like a second home to Homer A. “Hank” Winter, a retiree who has given of his time and resources as a volunteer since then. Winter consistently rolls up his sleeves and helps where he can, from building enclosures for animals, feeding them, collecting and storing hay or performing mechanical repairs when needed.
The remarkable thing about the indefatigable Winter is that he is 91.
Located in the Georgetown area, the South Carolina Coastal Animal Rescue & Educational Sanctuary is a nonprofit wildlife rescue and rehab center, founded in 2006 by entrepreneurs Cindy Hedrick and Skip Yeager. The sanctuary is home to all manner of exotic and domestic animals from horses, timber wolves and ferrets to parrots, macaws and reptiles.
The organization’s website summed it up like this: “We provide a compassionate ‘no-kill/no-breed’ haven for abused, neglected and unwanted exotic animals. A safe caring place in which they can live out their days in a healthy, natural environment with a good quality of life.”
Winter was recently honored as the South Carolina winner of the 2014 Home Instead Senior Care Network’s Salute to Senior Service Award, garnering $500 for his charity of choice. The national competition was vote-driven online.
In a press release, Home Instead, Inc. President Jeff Huber had this to say: “Hank represents so well the dedication and commitment that make senior volunteers such a value to their communities. He has proven once again that age is meaningless when it comes to making a difference.”
“I am very lucky, I guess,” said Winter. “I had a lot of people voting for me – even a bunch of people I didn’t even know, so I do appreciate the honor.”
On the fateful newspaper article that he happened to notice: “Charmer needed a foot operation and needed a barn,” he said. “Contrary to my military training where you don’t volunteer for anything, I called. I helped build the barn and get the horse operated on, and stayed for six years.”
Winter, a World War II veteran, flew in the Navy for 32 years and then went on to fly charter for 27 years.
“Then the wheels started coming off – I had cancer and a heart problem and ended up with a pacemaker. That shot me down from flying.”
But what motivated him to stay with the sanctuary?
“I enjoy maintenance, carpentry – building things – and I like animals, so it all worked out well. Skip and Cindy are real special people. They are very interested in animals and their care, so it’s a real pleasure working out there. But nowadays in the middle of the day there, I kind of look for a lot of shade most of the time,” he chuckled.
SC-CARES co-founder Yeager says that any time there is anything to build, Winter is right there.
“He just finished a shelter for two wolf dogs,” he said. “He works on mowers and our four-wheeler, and there is very little he can’t do.”
Millgrove Farms in Georgetown donates square-baled hay to the sanctuary.
“When they call and say they have some in the fields, Hank’s right there – either driving the truck or loading it up,” said Yeager.
“Hank is a wonderful and amazing man,” said sanctuary co-founder Cindy Hedrick. “At 51 I can’t keep up with him. Hank is not only a wonderful volunteer – he’s one of my very dearest friends.”
Yeager cites a possible discrepancy with Winter’s online profile for the voting process.
“The nominator got some of the details wrong or he could have gotten the national award,” he said. “I think she said he worked 40 hours a month.” In reality, Winter is there six days a week and it’s not unusual for him to put in 50 or more hours.
Winter, born in Santa Rosa, Calif., joined the Navy in 1942 as a cadet.
“I went through training and ended up out in the Pacific in 1945 aboard the carrier USS Monterey.”
He was flying a TBF Torpedo Bomber at that time.
“I got shot down over Tokyo in July 1945, which was the first day of the prestrikes for the Invasion of Japan, which was supposed to occur sometime in September.”
He ditched in Tokyo Bay and was picked up by U.S. Navy submariners.
“At that time the Japanese fleet was either sunk or in hiding. If you got in trouble in Japan, you would limp out over the ocean, come up on a frequency and say you were in trouble, and they would come pick you up.”
He lived in Tennessee for 30 years and flew air charter there.
Dorothy Essex has known Winter since the early 1970s and has lived in Georgetown since 1978. Winter currently lives right next door, and he said Essex takes care of him.
“Dorothy is a nurse, and I call her my surrogate mother,” he said. “My stepson married her sister in 1973. Her mother and I became very close. We moved here from Tennessee in 2006, but she passed away within the year. So here I am.”
“Hank is the quintessential Naval Officer and Southern Gentleman – a good all-American man,” said Essex. “He is a very ethical person and lives by the Golden Rule.”
Essex added that it’s hard to pry him away from the sanctuary.
“He’s devoted to the animals and is very supportive of the work being done there. He does everything out there, and I mean everything.”
Does she worry about him?
“Of course I do,” she said. “I worry – especially in this heat. I mean, hello, he is 91. I’m working in the heat all this week [at the Salkehatchie Summer Service, a ministry of the South Carolina United Methodist Church]. I’m 60, and I have to take breaks.”
Winter and Essex attend services at Herbert Memorial United Methodist Church in Georgetown.
Winter’s last tour of duty in the Navy took him to Izmir, Turkey in 1972, where he met Karl-Michael Sala, now a genealogist.
“[Hank] was an influential, instrumental leader of not only military men from various branches of the Armed Forces, but also their families, especially the children aka ‘dependents.’ This included hundreds of minors, including me,” Sala said.
Sala was best friends with Winter’s stepson, Hunter Brown, and they had a band called Peaceful Revolution at that time.
“When my father was transferred out of Izmir, I lived with the Winter family for a few months to finish out our performances in Izmir. The most notable quote from him was on a sleepy Sunday morning after I had a long Saturday evening of music and fun. He called into my room: ‘OK, Mike, the Big Man on Saturday night still has to be the Big Man on Sunday morning.’
Hank is an unforgettable man who did not treat me like a child, but much more respectfully – like a younger brother.”
Winter says he has had a good life.
“I can’t complain. I always wanted to be a pilot – even when I was 5 or 6 years old. World War II kind of expedited things. I flew for 59 years and have 19,000 hours, if that means anything.”
“He is very humble and doesn’t strive for recognition at all in anything,” said Essex. “He tries to help everybody and he thinks he is just like anybody else, but he is so far above par. He is amazing. He really is.”