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Louis Zamperini: Athlete, war hero, Olympian, Grand Marshal, evangelist dies

Louis Zamperini stands between Tournament of Roses Pres. Rich Chinen and son Luke, listening to members of the USC Trojan marching band play “Tribute to Troy” and “Fight On!” at the Rose Parade Grand Marshal announcement in May.
Louis Zamperini stands between Tournament of Roses Pres. Rich Chinen and son Luke, listening to members of the USC Trojan marching band play “Tribute to Troy” and “Fight On!” at the Rose Parade Grand Marshal announcement in May.
Laura Berthold Monteros

UPDATE: Pres. Richard Chinen announced on Oct. 6 that Louis Zamperini will be honored by having his family participate in the 2015 Rose Parade.

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Louis Zamperini passed away on July 3, 2014, at the age of 97. This is not a news story about his death; that has already been well covered in other places. Steve Chawkins and Keith Thursby of the Los Angeles Times penned a moving obituary, and the Pasadena Star-News posted a timeline of the highlights of his life.

Today, on the Fourth of July, this reporter will write something more personal. I will tell you what Louie Zamperini meant to me.

When Zamperini was announced as the Grand Marshal of the 2015 Rose Parade last May, I think I was the only person who guessed, and I was thrilled. All the press knew from the beige carpet that was striped like a track that it would be an athlete; we knew from the row of Olympic torches that it would be an Olympian; we knew from the band playing Italian American pop tunes that it would be someone of Italian descent.

But when I looked up “Italian American athletes” on my smart phone, only one name jumped out: Louis Zamperini. If ever any one person exemplified the theme “Inspiring Stories,” it would be Louie.

He was one of my mother’s heroes. She told me the story of the World War II plane crash, the weeks spent adrift at sea, his capture by the Japanese, his conversion at a Billy Graham rally, his Damascus Road reversal, his forgiveness of his torturers.

As a teenager, I heard the story from Zamperini’s own mouth when he spoke at my church. Why Zamperini’s story lingered in my mind for so many years, I am not sure. I don’t remember very many guest preachers from my youth. He was a good speaker, at once humorous and compelling, and that humor showed at the press conference as he delivered jokes and shared the story of the making of Unbroken, a feature film set to premiere on Christmas Day this year, and his relationship with director Angelina Jolie.

Tournament of Roses President Richard Chinen said that when he read the book on which the film is based, “the theme crystalized” in his mind. He said the theme “pays tribute to people, those who have done great things…. It’s remarkable. So much of what they do leads to the unthinkable being achieved.”

Zamperini was a SoCal boy all the way from his childhood in Torrance to his college days at USC and his membership at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. When I was growing up, it was a rare Southern California Presbyterian who hadn’t heard of him, so I heard his name many times before and after that one speech I attended.

I think what struck me that long-ago evening in a cramped room listening to a surprisingly small man, what washed over me on the second Friday in May, is that he was thoroughly genuine, thoroughly humble, and thoroughly connected with the individuals hearing him. He lived one of the most incredible lives a human being could, like the apostle Paul running from God and like Paul being gripped by a God who would not let him go.

Zamperini ran from the cops as a kid, he ran on the track in high school, college, and the Olympics, and he ran from the many promises he made to God during the tough times in his life. But finally, he ran “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14, NASV) As his son Luke told me, he was a witness and an evangelist.

Shortly after Chinen made the announcement that Zamperini would be the Grand Marshal, I wrote a story about and my reaction for a writing group I am in, which can be read here. The group meets at a retirement community for Presbyterian church workers, so many of the people around the table were very well acquainted with Louie and had stories of their own to share.

There was deep dismay from those of us who loved Louie that the movie Unbroken ends with Zamperini’s liberation from the POW camp, leaving behind the subsequent chapters of his life. The biography written by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, is a long one, perhaps too long to be told in one screenplay.

But physical liberation is not really the story of Louie Zamperini. The story, you see, the thing that sets Louie Zamperini apart from other athletes and warriors, is not survival. It is forgiveness. It is turning from destruction to restoration and spiritual liberation. Without that, Unbroken is just another war story.

Zamperini’s life could be referred to as being two books; in my small, relatively unimportant voice, I ask the director, producers, and studio to finish his story. The most important chapters are yet to come.

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If you have a question or would like a reply to your comment, please post on Facebook at All Things Rose Parade or email lbmonteros@yahoo.com. The theme of the 126th Rose Parade and 101st Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1, 2015 is “Inspiring Stories.” Subscribe to Tournament of Roses Examiner by clicking the "Subscribe" link for the latest news and announcements.