ALCESTER, S.D. | Word of Debbie Reynolds' recent death sent Dennis Hultgren to his archives. He watched Reynolds perform when she was 20 and coming off her performance opposite Gene Kelly in the classic musical "Singin' in the Rain."
It was the final Sunday in December 1952. Hultgren, a native of West Akron, South Dakota, was serving in the U.S. Army, leading a unit of men who retrieved the bodies of dead soldiers from the front lines
"There were five of us doing this work," Hultgren told me. "I'd get called to go to the front lines to pick up a body and get the man's personal effects."
The bodies were shipped to a headquarters station in Korea and then on to Japan where they were embalmed, preparing for the trip overseas and their final resting place, wherever that might be in the U.S.
"Taking care of the dead was so important," he said. "They deserved respect, so much respect."
Service like that may leave a veteran grasping for bright spots in a tour of duty. And so it goes for Hultgren, who sat on the ground that December day, spellbound by the talents, energy and beauty of Debbie Reynolds, Hollywood star.
Reynolds was 84 when she died on Dec. 28, one day after her daughter, "Star Wars" icon Carrie Fisher, died of cardiac arrest. Reynolds was reportedly making funeral plans for her 60-year-old daughter when she suffered a stroke.
"She was very effective entertaining these lonely soldiers," Hultgren said.
Hultgren, a retired farmer, committed the details to pen and paper long ago, publishing them in his memoir, "To Korea and Back Home Again."
"The Hollywood Program" chapter in his book includes the names of troupe leaders Keenan Wynn and Walter Pidgeon. Actress June Bruner appeared with Reynolds, details he gleaned both from memory and a write-up provided long ago by the 224th Regiment newsletter.
"Debbie Reynolds looked up at the hill behind where the program was performed," he said. "Some of our soldiers were sitting up their with their weapons."
Reynolds, he said, looked at and pointed to the men with their weapons and asked if they were the enemy. The line elicited a big laugh, he said.
Forty years later, Hultgren and his wife, Nelda Hultgren, traveled to Las Vegas to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. They attended Reynolds' show and met her at a reception that followed.
"I told Debbie that I remembered her from that show in Korea in December 1952," Hultgren said. "She immediately said she remembered that day and told me how sorry she felt for the soldiers who had to sit on the cold ground."
"I asked her if she remembered what she said concerning the soldiers on the hill in back of the stage," Hultgren said.
Reynolds did. She repeated what she'd said while opening her portion of the show in Korea, a comment about whether or not she and the soldiers were safe with "enemy" forces stationed on the hill.
Reynolds visited with the Hultgrens and autographed a black-and-white portrait for both Dennis and Nelda, keepsakes they brought out as reports of her death filled news reports. Reynolds' funeral was held Friday.
"You may think of Debbie Reynolds as a big star, but there was another side to her," Dennis Hultgren said. "She was just a nice person."