Aurora's history: George B. Hettinger and the birth of a city

John Kudley Jr.
Special to the Aurora Advocate
George B. Hettinger & Arlyn Hettinger

As Aurora approaches its 50th anniversary as a city on March 20, there have been many individuals that have had an impact on the development of the City. One of those was George Benes Hettinger.

Beginning in 1955 Hettinger served the community in multiple leadership roles over a span 53 years culminating with his retirement from public service in 2007. His first position was that of Clerk-Treasurer with the Village of Aurora from 1955-1960. He was later elected to the serve on the Village Council. In 1960 he was elected Village Mayor and served two terms through 1965. He spent two years out of office and then was elected Councilman in 1968 and then again as Mayor in 1969. It was during that term that he had the distinction of being the last Mayor of the Village and the first Mayor of the City. From 1972 until his retirement in 2007 Mayor Hettinger served ten terms as Councilman-at-Large.

George Hettinger was born on July 18, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio to parents George A. and Gloria Sylvia (Benes) Hettinger. His sister Ruth was his only sibling. His childhood was spent growing up in Cleveland Heights where, according to Hettinger, he spent more time being" a “free spirited youth” rather than focusing his time and talent on school. One of his favorite pastimes was trapping muskrats at Shaker Lakes and selling their pelts.

PFC George Hettinger, U.S. Marine, on leave in China in 1946.

In 1943 he graduated from Cleveland Heights High School. With America involved in the grips of World War II he enlisted into the U.S. Marine Corps. Over the years in talking with him it was never really clear as to what motivated his enlistment. He always told the story that he really did not have a choice and that his father had given him an ultimatum. Since it seem that he had been a rebellious youth his father said that “George, you have a choice enlist or go to jail.” Hettinger’s father was an attorney and didn’t have the authority to send him jail, Hettinger opted for the Marines. He was only 17 and when asked why he chose the Corps he said that “I really liked this girl in high school and it seemed like everybody was going into the Army, so I thought joining the Marines would really get her attention.”

Hettinger spent basic training in San Diego, California before shipping off to the South Pacific as part of the 6th Marine Division. Trained as a radio operator, Hettinger served with a Navajo “Code Talker” by the name of Alfred Peaches. Hettinger recalled that one of his orders was that if the situation arose where they might be captured that under no circumstances was Peaches to be taken alive. In 2002, 58 years after having fought alongside with Peaches, Hettinger was once again reconnected with his Navajo fellow Marine. While on a mission trip with youth from The Church in Aurora the group visited the Hubble Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona. A young Navajo woman was giving a presentation about the contributions of the Navajo Code Talkers during the war. As we sat in the shade of the trees in the hot Arizona sun, I am sure that Hettinger’s thoughts drifted back to the battlefields of the South Pacific. When the presentation ended, Hettinger introduced himself to the young woman. To his astonishment she was the daughter of Alfred Peaches. That chance encounter began an exchange of letters between the two wartime companions.

Cpl. Alfred James Peaches, Navajo Code Talker, U.S. Marine Corps.

During the war Hettinger saw action in the Marine landings at Guadalcanal, Saipan, Guam and Okinawa. During the fighting on Guam he was wounded in the hip and was sent to Australia for recovery. At Okinawa he again wounded sustaining shrapnel in his right shoulder and spent time in New Zealand recovering. When the war in the Pacific ended with Japanese surrender in August 1945, Hettinger spent 6 months in China assisting in the repatriation of Japanese soldiers. One of the items on display in the Historical Society’s Museum is a Japanese infantry rifle that he disassembled and shipped home. When asked how he obtained the rifle he told the story that during the battle on Okinawa he had to search a cave. It was there that that he “borrowed if from a Japanese soldier that didn’t need it anymore.”

During the Korean War, Hettinger was recalled to duty, leaving his teaching and coaching positions at Aurora High School. Having seen combat during WW II, he was assigned to stateside duty at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. For his service SSgt. Hettinger was award the Sliver Star, Navy & Marine Corps Medal, Bronze Star, Purple Heart with a Gold Star, Combat Action with Two Bronze Stars, Presidential Unit Citation, Meritorious Unit Commendation, Good Conduct Medal with two Bronze Stars, Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal, and the China Service Medal. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” like many combat veterans he did not speak openly about his experiences, but it was evident from his comments that the Marine Corps had changed that 17-year-old boy into a man.

After the war Hettinger earned a bachelor of science degree from Kent State University. Even though his thoughts of capturing the attention of his high school sweetheart by wearing the Marine uniform did not materialize, while at Kent he did capture the attention of his future wife, Arlyn Robinson. After graduation from Kent they both were hired to teach in the Aurora Schools. George taught chemistry, biology and math. He also drove a school bus and coached football. When the team was short handed, he would suit up and practice with the team. After his active duty during the Korean War he returned to his employment with the schools. It was then that the Hettingers started a family which grew to include for children, David, Christine, Barbara and Mark.

While teaching at Aurora, Hettinger earned a master’s degree in education from Kent. He left Aurora for a teaching position at Kenston High School. After one year as a teacher he spent the next five years as junior high assistant principal before becoming high school principal. In 1962 he became superintendent of schools in Warrensville Heights, a position he held until his retirement in 1981. It was during that time that he also earned a doctorate of education from the University of Akron.

In his retirement, Hettinger became involved the with Christian Reformed Church’s mission activities in Crown Point, New Mexico where a small primary school was located. Over a period of 10 years he organized high school students from The Church in Aurora to serve on mission trips to the Navajo Reservation upon which the school was situated. The students completed construction projects work in preparation for the coming school year. The “kids” from Aurora were immersed into the Navajo culture where they gained an appreciation for a very different life outside the “bubble” of Aurora. The real meaning of what the young people learned from the mission was best evidence from an exchanged that took place one evening while they gazed into a starlight sky. One student mentioned that she had helped one of the Navajo teachers with cleaning her classroom and bemoaned the fact that she was not thanked when the job was completed. Another student relied that, “if you needed to be thanked, then you came on this trip for the wrong reason.” The opportunity to serve and learn that Hettinger provided the “kids” from Aurora was priceless.

Aurora City Council in December 2007. From left are Denny Kovach, George Horvat, Robert Galaska, Law Director Alan Shorr, Carl Rausch, George Hettinger, Jim Vaca, Joe Kastelic, Tom Dreher and James Fisher

As mayor and as a councilman, Hettinger served the community during its formative years as it grew from a small village into a diverse city. Working with Charlie Brown, Aurora’s service director, and City Council, Hettinger helped to provide improved sewer and water services. He worked with other officials and business leaders to attract Sea World of Aurora, which became a major attraction in Northeast Ohio. Hettinger was also involved with the city’s volunteer fire department where he served as a captain. It was through his efforts that the department instituted its paramedic program as he worked with Brentwood Hospital (Cleveland Clinic’s South Point Hospital) to establish one of the first paramedic certification programs in Northeast Ohio. An accomplishment that he was most proud of was the work that the city did during his administration in purchasing Sunny Lake.

Like anyone he was not without his faults and was noted for his sometimes stubborn temperament and protective nature, especially when it came to his property. Many old time residents may recall, as did Liz Strahan, Hettinger’s efforts to block the opening of Bissell Road between West Pioneer Trail and Route 82. The opening of the paper street that ran along the eastern boundary of his property at the corner of West Pioneer Trail and Bissell Road was also opposed by residents living in Walden. Despite the opposition, the road was opened.

George Hettinger died on November 9, 2014 and is buried in the Aurora Cemetery. While he may have been a young boy growing up without a sense of direction, his 53 years of service to city provided a sense of direction that helped to make Aurora the community we call home.

Printed with the permission of the Aurora Historical Society which retains all rights to content and photos.