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Bill Slifer in the workshop of his Boonsboro home, where he has created hundreds of model planes out of wooden clothespins and Popsicle sticks. (Photo credit: Janet Heim / Reporter)

Wednesday August 15, 2007

Veteran craftsman

Book recounts 'Uncle Bill' Slifer's WWII experiences, model plane building hobby

By JANET HEIM
janeth@herald-mail.com

BOONSBORO - The supplies are simple - wooden clothespins, dowel rods and Popsicle sticks. It's the hours of shaping and gluing by Bill Slifer's arthritic hands that turn basic items into treasured collectible pieces.

Fascinated by his hobby, as well as his experiences as a World War II veteran, his niece, Eileen Slifer, recently published a children's book featuring her "Uncle Bill."

The book - "The Model Maker: A World War II Veteran's Story" - recounts Bill Slifer's experience at the Battle of the Bulge, along with his hobby of building airplane models. It was a labor of love that took Eileen Slifer, 44, about 400 hours to put together.

Bill Slifer began crafting model planes about six years ago, remembering how he used to connect two clothespins together as a child to create a toy airplane. The hobby became a way to share his experience as a WWII veteran, as he told the stories of the airplanes that he credits with his safe return home.

He was one of eight children raised in Locust Grove, near Boonsboro. Slifer, now 86, graduated from Boonsboro High School in 1939. He worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, served in the U.S. Army, then worked as a bricklayer.

All but one brother were veterans - Slifer and his older brother, Rodney, served in WWII; three of the younger ones in Korea.

Rodney Slifer had one daughter, Eileen. Rodney Slifer died of a heart attack when Eileen was 16.

To Eileen Slifer, who is an artist, "Uncle Bill" was like a second father to her. He gave her away at her wedding.

She had always been interested in WWII history and felt like children don't know as much about that war as they should. Her uncle's model planes seemed like a way to tell a WWII story, honoring her father and uncle at the same time.

"The planes were a springboard for a history lesson," said Eileen Slifer, who lives in Newark, Del. "I tried to do it in such a way to appeal not only to our family, but to a broader audience."

She said watching her uncle in his workshop reminded her of her father.

The history lesson took the form of a children's book, with Eileen creating illustrations from photographs. She interviewed her uncle, but felt too close to the material, so had an associate write the story.

It wasn't easy convincing Bill Slifer to be part of the book project. When he finally agreed to be interviewed, it was out of love for his niece and to honor his brother.

Bill served in the Army's 83rd Division as a radio operator and artillery observer. He muses that with his love for planes, he should have joined the Air Force instead.

The book includes an illustration of a photograph taken of the two older brothers at an unexpected reunion in Belgium, just before fighting began at the Battle of the Bulge.

Bill Slifer admits he wasn't sure what to think about the published book when he first saw it, uncomfortable with seeing illustrations of himself in print.

"Yeah, it kind of grew on me. I never wanted to be portrayed as a hero," Bill Slifer said.

"He's always been bashful," Virginia Slifer said of her husband of 61 years.

The couple, who were high school sweethearts, live in the home they built on Amos Reeder Road in Boonsboro in 1961. They built on property that was her family's farm and Virginia said the only time she didn't live on the farm was the three years she was in training at Washington County Hospital to be a nurse.

The road is named after Virginia's father. They have two sons, four daughters, 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Bill Slifer said he makes 10 different models the Spirit of St. Louis, Piper Cub J3, PT-17 Stearman, B-17 Flying Fortress, Brewster, B-29 Superfortress, Seaplane, P-38 Lightning, Jet Cargo Plane and the Concorde. He has made a couple hundred models in total, all of which have been given away.

"It was just a hobby. I love doing it," Bill Slifer said.

The self-published book, which came out right after Christmas 2006, is available for purchase on the Internet at www.lettersourcebooks.com/modelmaker or by calling 302-454-1161.

"I think if her father had been living, he'd have been real proud," Virginia Slifer said of Eileen.


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