Patrick Dewane knew his grandfather’s story was a mystery he was willing to dedicate decades to solving.
He spent thousands of hours walking around his grandfather’s house, wondering what all the World War II medals, pictures and memorabilia represented.
“He was proud of it and it was a big part of him, but he was not going to answer any questions from his grandson,” he said.
Not until decades later, after his grandfather passed away, did his questions get answered. Dewane was a pallbearer at his grandfather’s funeral and thought that was the end of his grandfather’s story.
“When we buried him I thought we buried his stories with him,” he said.
Weeks later, Dewane’s sister was cleaning out their grandfather’s things and came across a trunk. She opened it and found hundreds of letters, stories and pictures.
Inside was the answer to the mystery Dewane had been trying to solve: letters, written by their grandfather, telling his story.
She made copies and handed them out at Christmas. He said from the minute he started reading them he knew the mystery of his grandfather’s story was solved.
“I was hooked, fascinated from that first Christmas Eve and fascinated ever since,” he said.
Matt Konop was born in the Czech Republic, immigrated to America and ended up in Two Rivers, Wis. He learned to speak English at age six and spent most of his adult life trying to become American and blend in with his surroundings.
His thick accent and quirky ways made him stand out but Dewane says all he ever wanted was to blend in. During World War II, he joined the Army and traveled around the world. He was even part of the Battle of the Bulge but the real turning point in his story came during the last week of the war.
His division was chosen to announce to the Czech Republic citizens they were being liberated. Because he spoke the native language, he was chosen to lead the soldiers into town.
The evening before the liberation, his curiosity got the better of him and Konop sneaked into the town. Upon entering, he realized he was in the town his grandparents originated from.
The people were surprised and scared because they’d never seen an American soldier who spoke their language.
He explained to them what was going to happen and that they would be back in a few days to liberate them from Nazi Germany. When he returned, the town was overjoyed. They created banners and conducted a parade in honor of their accidental hero.
“Suddenly the truth of it is revealed to him on the shoulders of people he’s related to,” he said. “The national anthem was played for the first time in six years and it turned his own identity inside out.”
That identity, Dewane realized, was one of an immigrant who knew little of his own family history. He said his grandfather spent much of his adult life trying to fit in, but when he was back in the Czech Republic, he saw himself in the family members and townspeople there.
“He was sure his home was in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, but after the events of May 1945, I think Grandpa had one combat boot in Wisconsin and one combat boot back in the Old Country.”
Upon returning home to the states, Konop never spoke about the war and instead secretly retired to his room to write about it.
“I think that was a way for him to create a safe distance for himself and the experience,” Dewane said. “I think he saw himself in a race against time, so he saved his stories for his typewriter.”
Dewane says he spent that Christmas hiding away in a room, reading as many of the stories as he could. Once the magnitude of what he was reading settled in, he knew he had to retell the story his grandfather lived.
With encouragement from friends, he began writing the script that eventually turned into the one-man show he has toured the nation with. The script took six months and over 4,000 hours to write.
Dewane has performed the show over 350 times in both the United States and the Czech Republic, in the town his grandfather became a hero in.
Dewane says that along his performance journey he has met several people who knew his grandfather. Most notable was a woman in the Czech Republic who came up to him after the show to tell him that she was pen-pals with his grandfather and wanted to say hello.
“I’m seeing ghosts all over when I’m there,” he said.
The show has now become Dewane’s full-time job but he says he never sees it as a chore, he sees it as an honor.
“It’s never a chore to do this,” he said. “Other things in my life might feel like that but this is where I get to step out of the ordinary and step into a different world.”
Dewane will be performing his one-man show, “The Accidental Hero,” on Thursday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m. in the Washington Area Performing Arts and Events Center.