I’ll never forget my first day of law school.
There, outside University of Louisville’s venerable Allen Courtroom on that long-ago September afternoon in 1973, I met a lot of eager, bright, very interesting people. There was Ched Jennings, who would become an authority on workers’ compensation law. He would be in my wedding party and I in his. There were future judges Paul Gold, Denise Clayton, Bruce Butler, Tom Dockter and John David Caudill. Kevin McNally, who graduated first in our class, spent his career defending people on death row, including before the U.S. Supreme Court. Also on the roster was Ann Oldfather – yes, that Ann Oldfather, the brilliant scourge of wrong-doers across corporate America. Over there was a precocious young man from Prestonsburg, Greg Stumbo – future Kentucky attorney general and 32-year member of the state’s House of Representatives (six as speaker). He, too, was in the class of 1976.
And then there was Raymond David Stengel. Tall, blond, ruggedly handsome, he was older than the rest of us waifs. Dave Stengel was 27 and had actually done something with his life already. He had fought in Vietnam.
If you lived during the 1960s and 1970s, there was no more soul-searing word in the American vocabulary. There was no middle ground, you either defended the United States’ “involvement” in the war between North and South Vietnam or passionately opposed it. Regardless of where you stood on the war, which would finally end in 1975 during our final year in school, Dave Stengel, because of his obvious character and affable charm, was someone we immediately liked and respected.
Dave Stengel was born in 1946 in Louisville to parents Helen Marie and Raymond Joseph Stengel. His mother was a stenographer (she used to leave him notes like “don’t forget your lunch” in shorthand) and his dad owned a fleet of dump trucks. The Stengel clan had emigrated from Germany from a little town Dave couldn’t pronounce and I can’t spell. The Stengels were stonemasons, skilled artisans who built every bridge in Cherokee and Tyler Parks and did the stonework at Louisville’s City Hall and Old Jail buildings.
After attending two different Catholic grade schools where he battled first the Dominican nuns and then the Ursulines (he spoke his mind and was willing to pay for it), he went to Southern High School. An avid reader, he devoured military history books – Stonewall Jackson and Alexander the Great were two of his favorite subjects. About to graduate in 1964, he discovered an affinity for politics. To the consternation of his stalwart Democratic parents, their contrarian son joined the Young Republicans and volunteered in the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater.
After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1968, Dave enlisted in the Air Force. But his dreams of becoming a pilot were washed out when he did poorly on the math exams, a skill a pilot needed to master to learn how to navigate. On Feb. 6, 1969, another branch of the service came calling – the U.S. Army – which drafted him, math skills or not. After basic training at Fort Knox, he was sent to the Electronic Warfare School at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. There the Army decided to make their draftee a – you guessed it – navigator or, an “aerial observer” on the Army’s twin-engine OV-1A Mohawk airplanes.
It wasn’t long before Spec. 5 David Stengel was “in country” in Vietnam, flying reconnaissance and combat missions up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail, the clandestine route through the jungles by which most North Vietnamese soldiers infiltrated the south. The Mohawks were heavily armed aircraft that destroyed anything moving on that trail and then filmed the results for intelligence purposes. By necessity, Mohawks flew close to the ground eliciting the “attention” of anti-aircraft gunners and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The big planes also provided support for the “Jolly Green Giants,” the helicopters that swooped in to rescue downed American pilots. Choking up, Dave recalls one harrowing experience while providing suppressive fire for a rescue chopper that had been shot up trying to pick up a wounded pilot on the ground. “We just took a vote up here,” the helicopter skipper said over the radio, “and we’re going back to get him,” which they did and lived to tell about it.
From September 1969 to September 1970, this was Spec. 5 Stengel’s life – “killing people I didn’t know,” he says, “for people I didn’t like,” the latter a reference to his disdain for clueless generals and posturing politicians. He was decorated with the Air Medal/Valor and other citations he declined to disclose. Dave Stengel was one of the fortunate men who served in Vietnam who came home alive. 58,209 others did not.
After law school, Dave was a prosecutor in Commonwealth Attorney David Armstrong’s office where he worked for 13 years. From 1992-1996, by this time a Democrat, he served two terms in Kentucky’s House of Representatives where he was an outspoken advocate for civil rights and civil liberties. In 1996, Dave was elected commonwealth attorney and served longer in that office than anyone else. He personally handled the case against Jim and Patti Hearn, the infamous Louisville couple who had enriched themselves with $400,000 stolen from the Jefferson County schools for encyclopedias that never existed, let alone delivered. Dave retired in 2012, concluding a distinguished career in public service to his nation and to his hometown that lasted 35 years. At 71, he is now a “gentleman farmer” with a 50-acre spread in southeastern Jefferson County where he is also battling the latent effects of his military service: hearing loss and exposure to Agent Orange, the powerful defoliant sprayed all over the South Vietnam countryside throughout the war.
There are some serious problems in the United States: we have a president who, before a crowd that included women and children, called some fellow Americans who play professional football “sons of bitches.” There is the opioid epidemic, periodic mass shootings, terrorist attacks in our cities and the continuing efforts to get the civil rights problem “right.” But as long as this country keeps producing people with the unselfish, sterling qualities of a Raymond David Stengel, have no fear, America will always be “the last, best hope of earth.”
Bob Heleringer is a Louisville attorney who served in Kentucky’s House from the 33rd District from 1980 to 2002. He can be reached at [email protected]
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