Oscar-winning vet Harold Russell dies

Feb. 1, 2002 at 9:23 AM
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NEEDHAM, Mass., Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Funeral services will be held Monday for Harold Russell, who lost both hands in a World War II training accident and went on to win two Oscars as the inspirational star of the 1946 movie, "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Russell, the longtime chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, died Tuesday in a nursing home in Needham, Mass., at the age of 88, according to reports Friday.

He was the only person to win two Oscars for the same role in a movie that won eight Academy Awards, including best picture. Playing the role of Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both hands, Russell won an Oscar for best supporting actor and was also given a special Oscar for "bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans."

Russell, a native of Nova Scotia, was born in 1914 but grew up in Massachusetts. He joined the Army the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1944 while training 13th Airborne Division paratroopers in explosives at Camp Mackall, N.C., he lost both hands in an accident.

He was later fitted with metal mechanical hands at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. His ability with the devices won him a role in an Army Medical Corps documentary film entitled "The Diary of a Sergeant."

After seeing that film, Hollywood director William Wyler had the role of Homer Parrish created for Russell.

In his 1949 autobiography, "Victory in My Hands," Russell wrote: "It isn't what you have lost but what you have left that counts."

Russell, who lived in Hyannis on Cape Cod for 16 years, shared memories during a special showing of "The Best Years of Our Lives" at the Cape Cod Community College in 2000.

"He's a regular guy who stepped into the fate of being a public person," theater director Michael Tritto said at the time, according to the Cape Cod Times. "He's very outgoing and positive and never allowed himself to be defeated. He's very inspirational."

"He was a very positive person," his daughter, Adele Russell of Ashland, told the Boston Globe. "He always had a smile on his face. It brightened up the room."

President John F. Kennedy appointed him vice chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped in 1961. President Lyndon B. Johnson named him chairman of the committee in 1964, and he was reappointed by presidents Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

Russell helped establish veteran association AMVETS, and served three terms as national commander of the organization. He also served on numerous veterans' organizations and developed a consulting business, Harold Russell Associates, that helped the handicapped find jobs.

Nancy Cassidy, who worked with Russell for a time, recalled him as an inspirational person.

"He always tried to make people feel at ease," Cassidy told the Boston Herald. "He would thrust his right hook out for a handshake and say, 'It's all right. Some people have hands and some people have hooks,' and would do whatever it took to put the person at ease. He had the knack."

Russell often showed his good humor, quipping at times that his hooks could do everything "except pick up the dinner check."

In 1992, Russell sold his supporting actor Oscar for $60,5000 to help pay for his wife Rita's medical bills. She died in 1978.

He is survived by his second wife, Betty Marshallsee, a son and daughter, Gerald and Adele, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be Monday in Saint Ann's Church in Wayland.

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