When World War II began, George R. Earley was an English major at Harvard. His father, a postal worker who served during World War I, hoped his son would not go to war.
But Mr. Earley saw his Harvard classmates enlisting and decided that duty called. He joined the Army’s 70th Infantry, known as the Trailblazers, and became a 21-year-old private fighting on the front lines with his division, pushing the Germans out of France and later witnessing the horrors of the Nazi death camps.
In his field pack, he kept a small book of poetry. There was no time for novels, he later explained to his oldest son, George Jr.
“During breaks in the action, he would retreat into verse and stanza and would find a connection with the beauty and humanity so lacking in his current environment,” his son said. “He found some solace and reconnection.”
Mr. Earley, a Brookline native who became a medical social worker and spent more than 30 years working with veterans for the US Veterans Administration Hospital in Boston, died Nov. 16 at his home in North Eastham. He was 90 and had suffered from a period of declining health, his family said.
“In many ways his life was very simple, but noble and sublime at the same time with his sense of duty to his country and service to others,” George said.
Mr. Earley studied at the University of Glasgow after the war and finished his degree at Harvard in 1948. He worked briefly in public relations and business, and could have had made more money in those careers, his family noted.
But a life of service was his calling. He earned a master’s degree in social work from Boston College in 1958 and worked for the Massachusetts Division of Child Guardianship before joining the staff of the VA Hospital in Jamaica Plain.
He remained in military service in the Army Reserve and later the Medical Service Corps, retiring as a major.
While at the VA hospital, Mr. Earley coordinated services for blind veterans and oversaw programs for home care. He visited former soldiers in their homes and got to know the nooks and crannies of Boston neighborhoods.
In the 1970s, he was robbed while visiting a vet in public housing. The thief took his watch and his wallet but left Mr. Earley his keys so he could get home, according to his family.
The crime frightened Mr. Earley’s family, but he had no qualms about return visits to do his work. “He was unfazed by it,” said his son John.
When his sons visited his office at the VA as young men, Mr. Earley would amaze them with his knowledge of each veteran’s military career.
“He married up his love of history with his work,” said John. “I’d ask him, ‘How about that guy?’ And he’d say, ‘This guy was in Burma. He had malaria and was down to 120 pounds.’ He would know every veteran’s story.”
After he retired, Mr. Earley became active with Veterans for Peace. In 1998, he joined a protest in Eastham against US economic sanctions against Iraq and military action there.
“Some of these wars could be prevented,” Mr Earley told the Cape Cod Times then. “A lot of innocent people could be saved.”
His son George said that his father “never wanted national policy to underestimate the impact a war situation would have on the young people. He saw too many come home without limbs and mentally scarred.”
At the same time, Mr. Earley felt honored to serve in World War II. “He said the best thing he ever did in his life was to help oppose tyranny and Adolph Hitler,” John said.
He was married for more than 35 years to Marcia (Charest), whom he had met when they were graduate students at BC and commuted to assignments in Western Massachusetts together.
They were just friends until a snowstorm stranded their car overnight on the highway in Charlton, they told their family. Romance ignited that night and they married in 1957. They had five children and lived in Holliston for many years. Marcia died in 1995.
While living in Holliston, Mr. Earley was a lector and eucharistic minister at his church, St. Mary’s.
He loved animals and had many dogs throughout his life. “Dogs warmed to him,” his son John said. “They sensed his giving and compassionate ways.”
For his 25th reunion at Harvard in 1970, Mr. Earley reported to his classmates about his work with the Medical Service Corps in the Army Reserve and his enjoyment of his career and family.
In closing he wrote, “My main wish is that my children and all children will be able to live in a peaceful world where there is no more hatred and we shall at long last ‘beat our swords into ploughshares.’ ”
In addition to his sons George, of Holliston, and John, of Northborough, Mr. Earley leaves two other sons, Brian A., of Franklin, and Michael, of Southborough; a daughter, Marianne, of North Eastham; and eight grandchildren.
A funeral Mass was said at St. Joan of Arc Church in Orleans. Burial with full military honors was at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, where service members presented the flag to his daughter, who cared for him at the end of his life.
After his wife’s death, Mr. Earley found love again with Marjorie Sandblom, an old friend whose spouse also had died. They enjoyed going to dinner together on the Cape, watching television, and walking the beach, she said. They were together more than 10 years.
When Mr. Earley became too sick to leave his bed, he would phone Marjorie, who is 86. “He used to call me every night and we’d talk,” she said.
“He was one of the nicest, most generous guys I ever knew,” she said. “He was great company, a lovely man who loved everybody. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body and you don’t find too many of those around.”