- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - At first, it was just the man’s sign that caught Eric Reetz’s attention.

“Veteran 10 yrs Army,” William Tentis, 64, had written on a piece of cardboard. “God Bless.”

Reetz, who is a sergeant first class in the Minnesota National Guard and a St. Paul police officer, could not just walk by as he headed into the Xcel Energy Center to watch a Minnesota Wild game, the Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/2jyXxOX ) reported. They talked briefly and Reetz gave Tentis, who is homeless, a $20 bill.

“I didn’t think that we’d ever cross paths again,” said Reetz, 40.

But over and over again, the men began running into each other in St. Paul. Then they started looking for each other. They’re a generation apart, though they’ve bonded over the military service that they both hold close to their hearts.

In December, Tentis kept trying to find Reetz and he contacted the police department, hoping to reach him. When Reetz heard of his efforts, he thought it was because Tentis was sick or needed help. But when he found out the real reason, he nearly cried.

Tentis had Christmas gifts for him - nice winter gloves, a T-shirt and identification holders for “all the trips you go on,” Tentis told Reetz. And Tentis wrote him a note, saying Reetz had made “footprints on his heart.”

“Here’s a guy that has no home and sleeps outside and HE is giving ME something,” Reetz posted on Facebook. “. (B)eing nice to EVERYONE, even in the smallest of ways, or smallest gestures can have such an impact on lives.”

To thank Tentis, Reetz recently invited him to his home for dinner. Reetz picked him up in downtown St. Paul on a frigid afternoon and they stopped by Morelli’s to get steaks. As Reetz grilled the meat, Tentis prepared mashed potatoes and chatted with Reetz and his 14-year-old son.

“If it wasn’t for people like Eric and the other people that help me out, I’d be dead in the water, there’d be no doubt about that,” Tentis said. “How am I going to survive?”

While some people pass Tentis without reading his sign, there have been others who have taken him under their wing.

One gave him the nickname “Sir William,” which is what everyone calls him now.

“There are people that have been helping me for years - the same people,” Tentis said. “If I’m not out there, they say, ‘Where have you been, Sir William? Are you OK?’ There’s a lot of beautiful people in the world.”

Tentis does not call what he does panhandling because his sign doesn’t ask for money, but people do end up helping him.

Reetz first noticed Tentis and his sign more than a year ago.

“What made you come and talk to me, Eric, when we first met?” Tentis asked Reetz when he was at his house Wednesday.

“It was the sign. It was the veterans sign,” Reetz said. “. I just wanted to make sure that the veteran status was actually real. . That’s what it’s all about is making sure that someone’s not impeding on a veteran’s status.”

Reetz and Tentis said they’ve run into people pretending to have served in the military because it tugs at people’s heartstrings. When they first met, Tentis assured Reetz he was a veteran by showing him his Army discharge papers.

The next time Reetz went to a Wild game, there was Tentis again - sitting on a fire hydrant outside Xcel Energy Center. He recognized Reetz and showed him receipts from Aldi, saying he’d used the money that Reetz had given him to buy groceries.

At first, they would chat for two or three minutes at time; this week, they spent hours talking at Reetz’s house.

As Reetz prepared steak, garlic bread, green beans and more on Wednesday, Tentis asked Reetz’s son, “So what’s going on there, Ethan, in your life?”

“A lot of homework,” said Ethan, 14.

“I’m not your mom, I’m not your dad,” Tentis said. “You don’t have to lie. No kid sits at home and does a bunch of homework. Not nowadays.”

“I have to,” said Ethan. He’s a freshman at White Bear Lake Area High School, which is where Tentis happened to go to school. Tentis grew up in White Bear Township, graduated high school in 1971 and immediately enlisted in the Army.

Tentis said he was stationed in South Korea for three years during the Vietnam War and then served as a military police officer for seven years.

Back in Minnesota, Tentis graduated from Lakewood Community (now Century) College, settled in his hometown and had a family. Tentis said he had good jobs working for Honeywell and then the Soo Line Railroad and Canadian Pacific Railway, but he made a decision to go live in the woods after he got divorced and moved out of his house.

“I was tired of society,” Tentis said. “. Every time I turn around, I’m getting ripped off, I’m getting lied to.” He said he built a shanty in an area that was wooded near Interstate 35E and Pennsylvania Avenue in St. Paul and lived there for nearly 17 years.

In the last couple of years, Tentis has realized he’s too old to live out in the cold and has stayed on and off with a daughter or others who have taken him in. He said he hasn’t been able to get the full disabled-veteran benefits that he believes he should.

When Tentis was in Korea, he said he and three other men were loading a huge missile when one let go of an end, causing it to smash his knee and shoulder. Tentis gets cortisone shots for his injury at the VA Medical Center, but is still in constant pain.

Tentis‘ visit to Reetz’s place in White Bear Township on Wednesday was the first time he’d been back in years.

At dinner, Tentis said grace and then he, Reetz and Ethan tucked into their food, finishing the meal with apple pie.

“My motto is it only takes one person to make my day,” Tentis said, but on Wednesday, it wasn’t only Reetz and his son who accomplished that.

In addition to dinner, Reetz gave Tentis a care package. His former co-workers at the Stearns County sheriff’s office had sent it for Reetz to give to Tentis after they read his Facebook post about him. Another friend sent $100 for Tentis, and others donated money for an Aldi gift card.

After dinner, Reetz showed Tentis the bar he had built in the basement and pointed out two photographs hanging on the wall.

“That’s Josh Hanson and that’s Greg Riewer,” Reetz said. He told Tentis that they were friends who were killed when they were serving in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

“See, that would bother me to look at that every day,” Tentis told him, saying eight of his friends hadn’t come home from the war. “. I’d be crying every day, if I had a wall to put them on. . I couldn’t do that.”

Then, Reetz showed him another photo. “This is Janelle,” he said.

Wednesday was the first time that Reetz had told Tentis about his wife, who died of a heart attack when she was 35. They met when he was a Litchfield police officer and she was a Meeker County dispatcher. Janelle’s death in 2008 left Reetz a single dad: Ethan was 6 and Andrea was 15.

“I couldn’t even imagine losing a wife at that age,” Tentis told Reetz.

But in spite of tragedies, Reetz said he’s been able to stay focused on the positive in life. He told Tentis that he sees the same quality in him.

“You’ve always got to look forward, right?” Reetz said.

“Oh, yeah, yeah. . there’s certain things that you’re never going to get out of your mind, so you have to just deal with it,” Tentis said.

Tentis also believes: “What goes around, comes around” and he said he wanted to do nice things for Reetz after seeing his kindness.

First, Tentis gave Reetz a pin with a cross and an American flag on it. Next, Tentis presented Reetz with a “Kindness” coin that says, “Thank you for being so kind today . You’ve brightened my world in a lovely way!”

“I felt Eric was the one who deserved it,” Tentis said.

On Wednesday, Reetz mentioned to Tentis that he keeps the coin on his night table.

“I was thinking about this. . it’s my turn to give you a coin,” he continued, as they stood in Reetz’s kitchen.

When Reetz became a St. Paul police officer in 2014, one of his academy classmates had commemorative coins made. Reetz’s coin bears his badge number in the center, 802, and he handed it to Tentis, who stared at it.

“You can’t do that, Eric,” Tentis said, but Reetz assured him that he had a handful of extras. He only gives them to people who’ve been a positive force in his life.

“That’s yours now,” Reetz said.

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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