Patrick Dewane harbors no guilt for exposing his grandfather’s closely held secrets. In fact, Dewane figures Matt Konop, despite being a private man, would appreciate it.
On Saturday, Dewane will bring his one-man multimedia show, “The Accidental Hero,” to the Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo. He’ll tell the long-suppressed story of his grandfather’s heroism in World War II, which included fighting in famous battles and liberating his grandparents’ homeland in Czechoslovakia.
Other than his nickname – “the Colonel” – and a few wartime souvenirs, the family didn’t know much about Konop’s service. He refused to discuss it. His compelling story never would’ve come to light if Dewane’s sister hadn’t rummaged through her aunt’s basement and found Konop’s typewritten accounts, photographs and film footage from the war. It was as if he wanted his descendants to know his stories, but didn’t want to be the one to tell them.
“He would be very proud I’ve kept them alive,” Dewane said. “He would love that I am bringing forward what is best about both Americans and Czechs.”
Konop traversed Omaha Beach and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He knew Gen. George Patton. At war’s end, Konop was sent to liberate Czech cities. But he wouldn’t have wanted anyone calling him a hero. Konop would’ve said the heroes didn’t make it back from Europe. They were last seen face-down in the mud.
It’s curious, though, that he left behind such detailed reportage of his service. That’s why Dewane believes he has the tacit blessing to share his late grandfather’s incredible tale. “The Colonel” might be proud to know its telling prompts spectators to open up about their own experiences.
“People come up and tell me the most extraordinary things,” Dewane said. “The show is a channel.”
Konop’s grandparents left the old country in the 1860s in pursuit of the American dream. He grew up speaking Czech, but learned English at age 6 on his parents’ farm in Two Rivers.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940 after a long stint in the Army Reserves. Serving in the 2nd Infantry Division, he would rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Konop survived some of the war’s critical battles. His fluency in Czech earned him the dangerous assignment of commanding a unit to liberate Czechoslovakia. This duty changed his life, as Konop traveled to his grandparents’ homeland and reconnected with his heritage. As Konop announced the end of the war – in both Czech and English – in the city square, the Czechs celebrated being liberated by one of their own. They gave him a hero’s welcome. Today, his grandson gets the same reception when performing the “Accidental Hero” in the Czech Republic.
“They treat me like Elvis when I go there,” Dewane said.
Upon his return, Konop deflected questions about the war. And back in Czechoslovakia, a Communist takeover squelched any mention of the American liberation. When Konop died in 1983, there was no mention of his Army service at the funeral, not even a flag on the casket. It seemed his war stories were buried with him.
Telling the story
Twenty years later, Dewane’s sister found their grandfather’s typewritten manuscript, photographs and 8mm film captured on a handheld Kodak camera. She gave them to Dewane as a Christmas present.
“I became like a 10-year-old who just got his most favorite toy in the world,” he said.
Like anyone with a theatrical background – Dewane holds a master’s degree in theater management and has worked with theaters in New York, Philadelphia and Minneapolis – he saw the potential for a dramatic narrative. “I was shocked, and realized this story is as good as any I’ve seen anywhere,” Dewane said. “It’s A-plus material.”
Dewane told his grandfather’s story to friends at parties and always got the same response. “Invariably they would say, ‘They should make a movie out of that,’” he said.
Dewane didn’t know anything about making movies. But he started developing a theatrical script, a one-man show augmented by his grandfather’s photographs and movies. Dewane started working with a director and performing readings of “The Accidental Hero” for friends.
Now he has performed it more than 200 times professionally, at such venues as Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Veterans and their descendants approach him after each show, sharing personal stories about war, love and loss.
A new man
War changed Konop. Upon his return stateside, he embraced Czech culture, brewing his own beer and picking mushrooms. “The Colonel” twice visited Czechoslovakia during the Communist regime.
After that regime fell and Konop’s heroism came to light, the city of Domazlice dedicated a plaque in his honor. It depicts him being carried on the shoulders of townspeople in the square. Each May, the locals hold a festival celebrating the liberation, featuring a parade and Dewane performing “The Accidental Hero.” Today, Domazlice and Konop’s native Two Rivers are sister cities.
Dewane surmised that humility and a dose of survivor’s guilt prevented his grandfather from telling the story while he was alive. Konop was hardly the only war veteran to keep his memories to himself.
But the trove he left behind indicated he wanted someone – at least his family – to know the tale. With help from his grandson, grateful audiences in the U.S. and Czech Republic know it, too.
“It’s really about his identity,” Dewane said.