Mo & Terry Smedley


May 19, 2007 in City

GU rewards winner 61 years late

Shawn Vestal / Staff writer

From left, Gonzaga University President Robert Spitzer, Robert Probach and his son, Gregg Probach, meet Friday to settle the matter of $20 owed to Robert Probach for winning an essay contest 61 years ago.

The 1940s were a tough decade for Robert Probach.

He was injured twice and captured once as a soldier in World War II. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and spent months in a German prison camp.

And yet one of his enduring memories from those years was a $20 prize he won as a Gonzaga University student in 1946 – a prize he won but never received. For the 83-year-old Probach and his family, all of whom live in the Seattle area, the story of his stiffing became family legend.

“Dad frequently brings up this story, kind of kiddingly, about this Gonzaga newspaper prize that he got shafted on,” said Probach’s son, Gregg Probach. “So we thought, let’s resurrect this.”

The family contacted GU, and on Friday, Gonzaga President Robert Spitzer helped settle the account by presenting Robert Probach with a check for $512 – his $20 prize calculated for 61 years of interest.

He still won’t get his 20 bucks, though; he donated his check right back to his alma mater.

“But he’ll be able to write off that $512 on his income tax,” Gregg Probach said.

The story begins during Robert Probach’s service in the Army during World War II. He was stationed in Belgium in December 1944 – everyone thought that they were on an inactive front and the war was wrapping up, he said. American families had sent Christmas presents to their soldiers, and the presents were being stored in a nearby barn.

Then the Germans struck, mounting the huge offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was the bloodiest battle of the war for American forces.

Probach had recently rejoined his unit after suffering his second injury of the war – but then he was taken prisoner Dec. 20, four days after fighting began. One of the lesser casualties of the battle was the barn full of gifts, which U.S. forces burned to prevent any personal information from falling into the enemy’s hands.

“The Germans were moving in on us fast, and we had to destroy everything,” Robert Probach said.

Gregg Probach said that his father has often talked of the important realization he had when those gifts were burned.

“He tells the story that he realized that the greatest gift he had wasn’t those presents in the barn, but his faith,” he said. “He just hung onto his faith.”

He hung onto his faith during his time in a German prison camp near Frankfurt. After his release, he came back to his home state of Washington and enrolled at GU. Shortly after that, the Bulletin, the student newspaper, announced a contest asking readers to submit stories of their “Most Memorable Christmas.”

For Robert Probach, “that was an easy one,” his son said.

He submitted his story of Christmas as a POW, and it won. Robert Probach said he went in to see the newspaper editor soon thereafter and was told he would have to come back later for his money. That soon became a pattern, he said.

“He said, ‘You’ll get it; you’ll get it,’ ” Robert Probach said, before laughing loudly. “I never got it.”

He went on to graduate with several degrees and worked for decades as an educator in the Seattle School District. He retired in 1980.

Gregg Probach said he and his siblings have been trying to come up with experiences to give their father as birthday gifts, rather than merchandise. Last year, they went with him to the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

This year’s gift of his unpaid prize has been on Robert Probach’s mind since he learned about it in March on his 83rd birthday.

“He’s been talking about this at length to everyone who will listen to him down at Costco,” said Gregg Probach.

At Friday’s brief ceremony in the president’s office, Spitzer and Robert Probach handed an enlarged, two-sided check back and forth to symbolize the transfer.

“This is a great idea,” Spitzer said. “Just remember, you’ve got to give me the check back.”