MELROSE — On the first Tuesday of every month, 88-year-old Minor McLain got his cane and walked to VFW Post 2394 down the street. He never missed a meeting. He was never late.
He had lived through World War II. He survived the Battle of the Bulge and harrowing months in a prison camp, though relatives say it was not by much.
He remembered all of it and wanted to make sure others did, too. There are not many left from his war. People say that he was a walking encyclopedia and that he had made a life talking about that history. He taught at Salem State College for 35 years, was the VFW Post’s historian. Long after he retired, he talked to school groups and crowds at Veterans Day parades. He kept track of sick and dying vets and went to see them. He was a familiar sight, walking around town with his cane.
On Tuesday, a friend happened to pass on the street, honked and hollered out the window to see if the old man wanted a ride to the VFW meeting. He did not; he liked to walk.
A few minutes later, McLain stepped off the curb to cross and, in a blaze of sunset glare, was killed by an MBTA bus whose driver, authorities say, probably never saw him.
“I can’t really explain the sadness in my heart right now,” said the friend, John W. Pike, a retired Melrose police patrolman and a Vietnam veteran.
Pike stood on the trunk of his car and affixed a black and white POW/MIA flag on a telephone pole overlooking the intersection of Franklin and Pratt streets, where McLain was struck.
With tears in his eyes, Pike saluted the small flag, holding a rigid pose for about five seconds before lowering himself to the sidewalk.
Andrew McLain said his sister called from Georgia Tuesday night to tell him that their father had died. He did not sleep much and on Wednesday morning traveled from his home in Lynn to a Melrose retirement home to tell his mother.
“She broke down immediately,” McLain said.
The incident happened at about 7 p.m., and authorities are investigating whether solar glare may have prevented the 55-year-old bus driver, a nine-year veteran, from seeing McLain.
There were a few passengers on the Melrose Highlands bus, but they were not injured, nor was the driver, said Joe Pesaturo, MBTA spokesman.
Standard tests showed the driver had no alcohol in his system, and the results of a drug screen are expected in days.
The MBTA is conducting an internal investigation, usual procedure in the wake of such accidents, and will await the results of an investigation by the Middlesex district attorney’s office before clearing the driver to return to work.
Friends and relatives said McLain gathered himself every morning and walked with his cane from his apartment at Melrose Towers to a nearby coffee shop where he would sit and chat with friends.
From there, he visited his ailing wife at the Epoch Senior Healthcare center, also a short distance away.
McLain — who was awarded a Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart in the war — was the historian at the Sergeant Harold O. Young VFW post, but recently switched to chaplain. His new duties included reporting back on who was sick or had died. The post has 502 members. Of the 1,800 veterans in Melrose, less than 50 were in World War II.
He often volunteered to speak to schoolchildren about the war and to crowds at special events. Last September, he spoke at Wakefield’s MIA/POW Recognition Day.
Lisa Lord, a social studies teacher at Melrose High School, was among a group of educators who thought it would be a good idea to get McLain’s “wealth of knowledge on all things war-related” on tape.
“We were in the process of trying to schedule an after-school program, but we hadn’t been able to get a date,” she said.
They tossed around the possibility of doing several 30-
minute or hourlong speaker series or video productions featuring McLain and other veterans. “It’s incredibly unfortunate that his wealth of knowledge was unexpectedly lost,” she said.
Lord and Ryan McLane, the town’s veteran services officer, accompanied a group of 20 veterans, including six World War II vets, on a bus trip to Washington last spring, thanks to fund-raising by five eighth-grade girls from the Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School, who took in about $9,000. Four of those girls went on the trip.
For McLain, who was drafted in 1943, it was his first visit to the World War II memorial.
“He was a great example of what the World War II generation represents,” McLane said.
“He spent a great deal of time talking with those students on the trip, and they soaked it all in. It would have been fascinating to know what was going on in his mind as he stood in front of that memorial.”
At the VFW post on the night of the accident, the meeting that McLain never missed started without him. Soon, someone arrived and announced that a pedestrian had been hit.
“We didn’t want to believe it was him,” said Joe McKean, commander. “But I guess we all knew.”
“We were all dumbfounded, kind of numb. This man went through so much in his life — to be hit by a bus.”