'He was the absolute life of any crowd'
BY ALEX FRIEDRICH
ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Stacey Lhotka was dreaming about her husband, Jesse, on Sunday morning when the phone rang. It wasn't even 8 a.m. in Minnesota. He was always laughing about forgetting the time change since he had been stationed in Iraq.
It would be the last time the newlyweds would talk.
Sgt. Jesse Lhotka was killed the next day by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. On Tuesday, she gathered with her family to grieve and share their memories of a man with a sense of humor and determination to succeed. But all she remembers about that phone conversation two days earlier is that it was a "great call."
The 24-year-old Lhotka grew up in Appleton, Minn. As a kid, family members recall, he was prankster and a master creator and organizer, building tree forts, creating a play, or a inventing a game for his siblings — for which he'd make and change the rules as he pleased, of course.
At Lac Qui Parle High School he played football and was senior class president. He was even voted a homecoming attendant. His fellow classmates voted him "Class Clown."
He joined the National Guard in July 1999. It helped pay for school.
Lhotka met his wife through a fellow Guard member, a man who's serving in Lhotka's unit in Iraq. It was a blind date, but that didn't deter Lhotka, a romantic.
"He greeted me at the door with a white rose," she said.
He was about six years younger than her, so Stacey Lhotka thought he was "too young at the time."
But Lhotka turned out to be very mature for his age. Since the age of 14, his father-in-law said, Lhotka helped his single mother raise his five younger siblings.
Mother Beverly Lhotka called him "the best big brother."
He also turned out to be a husband who had respect for old-fashioned ways and yet was not afraid to show sensitivity.
Stacey's father, Dave Walters, a 53-year-old who runs a trucking business in nearby Sauk Centre, recalled Lhotka's gratitude when he took the young man on a four-wheeling trip with some friends last spring.
Lhotka opened up to him on the way back home, Walters said. Lhotka told him his dad had never taken him hunting or four-wheeling, he recalled. Lhotka told Walters, "I've never gotten to do stuff like this. I just loved it."
Walters enjoyed the time alone with Lhotka so much that he eased up on the gas pedal to give them more time to talk.
"That's when we first bonded," Walters said.
When it came time to propose to Stacey, Lhotka visited Walters at his shop, and as good as asked for his daughter's hand in marriage. The two spent almost four hours having a heart-to-heart talk in the shop about the ins and outs of marriage in the face of a possible deployment to Iraq.
Lhotka finally proposed to Stacey when they were about to depart for a send-off party in Appleton in early September. A sister said he presented her with a dozen roses and a note asking her to "share my life with me."
They were married Sept. 18, 2004. At the wedding, Walters said, "we put (Iraq) on the back burner, but it was always on everyone's mind."
After he was deployed, Lhotka was able to take a five-day leave in mid-December, where he spent an early Christmas with his family.
He often e-mailed and called home, and after Iraqi elections, he called almost every day.
He never complained, family members said. The food was good, he said, and they recall he was always focused on how they were doing.
Stacey was drawn to him because of his lust for life, she said.
"He was the absolute life of any crowd he was in," she said. "He was the biggest socializer." He was supposed to serve until about April 2006, but the newlyweds had hoped his deployment would end sooner.
"He (once) said, 'When I return, our lives will be perfect,'" Stacey recalled Tuesday.
Published in Pioneer Press on Feb. 23, 2005.