In March, Tara Lee Holwegner-Bertucci, a Billings native who now lives in Reno, Nev., received devastating news.
Her only child, Shawn, had been involved in a car accident. He survived, but his injuries were life-changing, she said.
Wanting an outlet, Holwegner-Bertucci turned to history, something with which she's always had a deep fascination. One of her Billings West High teachers had once tried to talk her into becoming a history teacher, telling her she was a "natural."
In May, Holwegner-Bertucci came across some World War II letters on eBay from a Billings man, Paul A. Smith, who was a pilot in the Air Force during the war. Kurt Kitasaki, from Irvine, Calif., was selling them.
“When these letters came up, I said, 'there has to be a family member who would really, really cherish these.' ”
She was determined to find the family.
But there was a problem. She wasn't the only one who wanted the letters. Turns out, World War II items like these letters are in high demand.
Soon, she found herself in two bidding wars — one for a hefty stack of letters that predate Smith's deployment overseas and another for the letters from his times in Germany and Belgium. He would later go on to fight in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, she said.
For $150, she was able to get the letters from home, but not the ones from overseas. Those, she said, went for about $20 a pop — all 300 of them.
"I would’ve loved to have the ones he wrote from Belgium and Germany," she said.
For a while, the letters she did receive — all addressed to the same woman, "Miss Genevieve Hilderbrand of 4018 Second Ave. S.," who'd later become his wife — remained unopened.
But when she came to Billings for a high school reunion this past week, bringing the letters with her, where she arranged them in chronological order, her mother asked her a question:
"What do they say?" she said.
Holwegner-Bertucci shrugged. She couldn't say. After a bit of prodding, she and her mom opened three letters.
In one letter they learned that Smith had a brother named Wayne.
There were also parts that made them laugh. In one letter, Smith complains to his fiancee, in flawless cursive handwriting, about the side job he took at a dairy farm while he was completing his training.
"They sure work the devil out of a person," Smith writes, "however, that $45 a week looks pretty good."
But she couldn't bring herself to read anymore.
"I wanted to, but I just felt like I was violating someone’s life."
"You can almost picture this man and this poor lady waiting in Billings, Montana, waiting for him to return," she said of the letters, which, in all, span 40 years.
Holwegner-Bertucci said she's put in more than 100 hours researching the family, but she hit a dead end and now hopes someone in the community can help bring the letters to the family, "where they belong."
"If I could find the family ... and say ‘this is your family history, this you should know about' ... that's all I want," she said.
"I don't want anything out of them other than to know they're not in an antique dealers hands, that they're not going to be resold and that somebody will cherish them."
Holwegner-Bertucci is returning to Reno on Saturday but said if the family was found, "I'd come back in a heart beat."
The hunt for the family in part has been a "much needed diversion" to what they've been going through with their son, Shawn, she said.
But the search has also been propelled by the fact that the purple heart awarded to her father, Arthur Lee Holwegner, which he received in the Korean war, wasn't preserved.
Recently, her son, Shawn, picked up a purple heart at a garage sale and gave it to his mom.
"He told me, 'mom, these don't belong out here.' "
"He knew how much it broke my heart not to have my father's purple heart," she said.
Even though she may never find her father's purple heart, Holwegner-Bertucci said she hopes to restore a part of the Smith family's history.
"For such a brave, brave man who gave up so much of his life to serve his country, the least we can do is preserve some of the love he had for this woman and his memories," she said.
If anyone has information about Paul A. Smith or his wife Genevieve Hilderbrand or their relatives, please contact the Gazette at 406-657-1293.