A squad leader was collecting dog tags when he spotted Gene Cogan, ’53 MA ’63, among the fallen on D-Day’s most intensely fought beach. The listless 21-year-old, reaching with his eyes toward the warm sun, had been anchored to the cold, bloody ground since the previous day, when he was shot—first in the arm, then in the shoulder, and finally in the hip. It was salvation after three long days of battle.
“The night before we stormed Omaha Beach, the captain pulled us on deck and told everyone to write a letter home. ‘For some of you,’ he said, ‘it would be your last,’” says Cogan, who served in the 3rd platoon, Company D, 115th regiment of the Army’s 29th Division. “I don’t think any of us were prepared for that morning. The ships got us in close to the beach about 5:30 a.m. A machine gun opened up, and I dove into the water. I always say that if gangplank diving was an Olympic event, I would have taken gold. Cannons lit up the sky, people were falling down all around me.”
Cogan pauses. “You would think after 70 years that I could get through talking about those days. But it still gets me. I lost a lot of good buddies. Yes, I did.”
Honoring his service
Gene Cogan fought in World War II, where he was honored for heroism, before attending Ball State.
In 2012, France awarded the Avilla, Indiana, resident the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) for his heroism during World War II. The United States followed suit with an award honoring his service on D-Day.
“I didn’t realize how important that battle was until television started to pick up, and I saw it on the History Channel,” the 92-year-old says. “Soon after, I visited Normandy with my old outfit to celebrate D-Day’s 60th anniversary. During the reunion, a Frenchwoman approached me, and when you’re 81 years old, you don’t tell a beautiful lady that you’re too busy eating breakfast to talk.”
The woman was Carol Duvall, a resident of Vierville-sur-Mer, one of the first towns the 29th liberated in 1944. Her father was 10 years old at the time, and her family has since worked to restore French monuments dedicated to U.S. troops.
“Carol and I have become great friends during my trips back to France,” says Cogan, whose last visit was in 2013. “On D-Day, I remember seeing the townspeople huddled in caves along the beach. They continue to be so grateful for our sacrifices, and we are honored for their efforts in keeping our memories alive.”
‘Give more than you get’
Cogan is dedicated—to his country, to his family, to his alma mater. For the past eight years, the former principal and basketball coach has sent a $100 check to Ball State.
“The university gave me so much,” Cogan says. “I just figure it’s my duty to give a little back.”
Since he hadn’t been back to campus in years, Cogan’s last check was paired with a note asking to return. Lola Mauer, ’98 MA ’98, director of annual giving, called him and was drawn in by his story.
“I was looking through cards from alumni, telling us why they give, and Gene’s stuck out. After following up with him and learning more about his passion for our alma mater and service to our country, I was happy to fulfill his request,” says Mauer, who arranged a campus tour and meeting with Ball State Army ROTC in early January. “He is such a treasure, and interactions like this make me believe in what I do. That he—at the age of 92—still takes the time to give back what he can.”
The rewards of education
Cogan didn’t have the traditional college experience. He had graduated high school in 1941, got married in 1942, and went into the service in 1943. Due to his injuries, the soldier was honorably discharged after a yearlong hospital stay. He went straight to work in factories and “hated every one of them.” One evening, he declared to his wife and two kids that he was headed to the Veterans Administration (now Veterans Affairs) building the following day. He took some tests, had a few interviews, and soon enrolled in Ball State on the GI Bill. His degree led to a 25-year career in several schools in north central Indiana.
About Gene Cogan
Hometown: Avilla, Indiana
Graduation years: ’53 MA ’63
Career: teacher, principal
Military service: 3rd platoon, Company D, 115th regiment of the Army’s 29th Division
Family: wife, Constance Joan; three children; 17 grandchildren and great-grandchildren
“Ball State gave me the tools to serve as a teacher and later a school administrator,” says Cogan. “The Ball State experience that stuck with me the most is being on the debate team. I learned how to truly listen to people and think critically, which was very helpful in my administrative career.”
“Another fond Ball State memory happened while I served one term in the Indiana House of Representatives,” says Cogan. “President John Emens addressed the House and Senate, making a case for the college to become a university. It was exciting to hear such progress and to know we were making history.”
Cogan delights in sharing his own history, particularly moments during his marriage of “52 years and four days” to his late wife, Constance Joan. His advice on marriage can be applied more generally, Cogan says. “Give more than you get” has served him well on many fronts.
By editorAlumnus Kate Elliott, communications manager and
This story will appear in the winter 2015 issue of the Ball State Alumnus, due out in mid-March. Pick up a copy to read more stories about Ball State alumni.