John Heberling’s ties to New Braunfels actually start in Braunfels, Germany, where Heberling was born and raised, and where his ancestors have had roots since the 17th century.
The sixth of eight children, Heberling, a strong Christian, attributes his father, a World War I veteran, for making him into the man he became.
“He was tolerant to others and their belief, always giving a helping hand in the community, the church, and in missionary work,” Heberling said, his voice tinged with the slightest of German accents. “Whenever anybody needed help or assistance to get to a hospital or other needs,my father was there to help.”
Heberling, 89, recalls growing up in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, and witnessing the horrors of Hitler’s rise.
“As a 6 year old, I sat in the front row (at church) at witnessed the arrest (of our pastor),” Heberling said. “He was not even allowed to finish his sermon. He was dragged out of the church. About six weeks later he was returned in a casket.”
Heberling recalls places of worship being burned to the ground, and recalled his father setting out to try to help his friends only to be severely beaten and suffering a double skull fracture.
At age 12, Heberling remembers sneaking a dropped Allied pamphlet meant to educate the masses into his shirt to read later, hiding it from the Hitler Youth.
“From that time on, I decided to leave Germany to go to America, and I started to listen to the BBC News,” Heberling recalls.
On March 24, 1945 at just 15 years old, Heberling was notified to report to boot camp.
“But my father said, ‘No,’ and listening to the news, we expected the US Army to arrive soon,” Heberling said. “He took my brother and me to the woods to collect firewood, and when he police came to arrest me, my mother was able to honestly say she didn’t know where I was.”
On March 27, 1945 the panzers of the Third Army had come through Heberling’s town.
“The war for us was over, we were liberated,” he said.
Heberling went to work for the US Army, helping answering phones and serving as a translator to help GI’s workout disagreements.
“I told my boss I planned to go to the US, and he said, ‘Well get trained up — there are enough idiots over there,’” Heberling said with a chuckle. “I signed up for engineering training and became a metallurgist.”
After graduating in 1951, Heberling helped engineer the wind tunnel by helping select the right metals to build it, and helped with the design of rockets.
In June 1956, Heberling met his wife, Wilma, a Scottish nurse. The two had their first date at Copper Kettle Cafe, where they stayed talking until 3 a.m., Heberling said. Heberling proposed to her on their third date, and the two married just four months later in October.
“We were married 62 years,” Heberling said smiling tearfully, holding out an “in memoriam” pamphlet showing Wilma passed away on Feb. 3, 2018. “She was my delight. You know the story in the Bible about the merchant who gave up everything for the pearl? She was my pearl.”
The couple had their first child, Katharine Elizabeth in 1957 and moved to Port Robinson, Ontario. During their time in Ontario, John became a coal miner for a period before going back to metallurgy.
The house they had bought was in a state of disrepair, so the couple worked hard together to bring it up into a home. In 1959 the couple had their second child, Annette Michelle, followed by their third, John Andrew in 1960.
“In early 1961, John and Wilma applied for entry to the US,” Wilma’s memorial states. “It was a long process, but on October 7, 1962 the family crossed the border and began a new life in Chicago, Illinois.”
Wilma, not enjoying Chicago’s cold winters, asked John to move — and they settled in Downey, California.
“Wilma went back to school, to become a teacher,” Heberling said.
John and Wilma moved to England in 1973, so Wilma could pursue her master’s in linguistics, while John continued to work on and off for the US military as well as a consultant for other businesses around the globe.
“I’ve climbed the pyramids of Giza, I saw where Moses made his path out of Egypt,” Heberling said. “I’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Turkey, Russia, Singapore to Bangkok.”
Heberling recalls deciding to go out for his pilot’s license, but after a near miss during training, Wilma told him it was her or the plane.
“I didn’t even hesitate when I chose her and the kids,” Heberling said.
The couple’s final move came in 1992, when they moved to New Braunfels-Selma area after John retired.
“We helped with a lot of research by helping translate German documents and articles to English at the Sophienburg,” Heberling said. “And we’ve done a lot of talks and teachings over there as well.”
Heberling has helped collect research about the German settlers who came to central Texas, collecting documents that have since been lost to time besides for scans he helped secure.
He and Wilma played in many re-enactments of German settlers for the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, help get historical markers put in place, and started a company to help veterans get hired.
During the New Braunfels Sesquicentennial, John and Wilma coordinated the trip for the Comal County Band to visit and sightsee in Braunfels, Germany.
John and Wilma volunteered as Wurstfest for many years, and Wilma did much of the the research and design of the Maibaum that stands on the Wurstfest grounds, a note John humbly brags on his late wife about.
The two have passed on the importance of education to their children; two of their three kids and one of their seven grandkids works as a teacher today. A member of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Universal City, John now lives with his son and often tries to see his four great grandchildren.