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Veteran recalls how simple conversation changed his life

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Korean War veteran Ron Hatcher, right, shakes hands with veteran Lance Berg, left, after being honored by Mayo Clinic Hospice staff and volunteers during a veterans pinning ceremony April 29 at the Homestead at Rochester.
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In 1953, Ron Hatcher returned to the U.S. from Guam, where he had served in the Navy during the Korean War. He spent a year and a half overseas, but the few hours on the bus home would impact his life more.

"It was pretty boring most of the time there," Hatcher said of Guam. He served as an assistant fire chief during his deployment on the island.

But on the bus ride from California back to Nebraska, Hatcher was seated next to an older woman. They passed the time chatting about his stint in the service, and she offered a life-changing piece of advice: Take advantage of the G.I. Bill and go to college.

Hatcher had no previous plans to return to school. But that fall, at the urging of a fellow bus passenger, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It was evidence, he and his family said, of the power a simple conversation can have on the trajectory of someone's life.

On April 29, he and his family recounted that conversation and many other memories during a veteran's pinning ceremony at Mayo Hospice.

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"Thank you for the sacrifices you made and your willingness to serve our country," said Lance Berg, a retired military man who works with Mayo Hospice to honor veterans. "You endured hardships, and you were willing to risk your life to maintain our freedom."

Hatcher's friends and family gathered to recount the memories of his life and thank him for his service, while poring over photos and memorabilia.

After four years of college and with an electrical engineering degree in hand, Hatcher joined the job hunt. He didn't apply to IBM initially, because he heard the company had high requirements. But the company eventually contacted him, and 27 of his classmates, to fill jobs, Hatcher said.

He took a job in Endicott, N.Y., where he worked on the guidance computers that NASA used to send several satellites into orbit. He worked on the computers that sent the Saturn rockets into space, and others that took some of the first photos of the galaxy.

At the time the projects Hatcher worked on were top secret, and he couldn't share the details of his work. It wasn't until years later that his kids found out the extent to which he was involved with some of NASA's biggest projects.

"He couldn't tell us what he worked on at the time," said his daughter, Toni Kay Mangskau, one of his seven kids.

His career and his 8-year-old son's heart condition led the family to Rochester and the Mayo Clinic. Hatcher took a job with IBM in Rochester and has been in the area ever since.

Hatcher's family said they were grateful for his military and career contributions and thanked him Friday. As he fumbled with the hat sitting on his lap, which read "Korea veteran," he thought through the years of his life.

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"It makes you proud, and I'd do it again," Hatcher said.

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