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1927 Colonel Donald 2023

Colonel Donald Esper

August 17, 1927 — October 23, 2023

Colonel Donald Esper passed away peacefully at the Thornwald Home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on 23 October 2023, at the age of 96. He was surrounded by his family, who loved him and will cherish his memory. He was known as Don, Donny, PaPa, Dad, and Daddy, and sometimes to his children as the “Beady-Eyed Colonel”.

The middle son of Norman and Dorothy (Rockey) Esper, Don was born in Detroit, Michigan on August 17, 1927. He lived in Detroit until he was 17, when he enlisted in the Navy and served in combat in the Pacific during WWII. After his discharge from the Navy, he resumed his education and graduated in 1950 with a degree in Business Administration from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was an Army ROTC cadet.

It was at XU night school that he met his wife, Zetta Ann Gausling, and married her on August 12, 1950. He claimed that he walked into the classroom, saw Zetta Ann, and told his brother, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry!” Together and in love for 69 years, Don and Zetta raised a family of three Army brats and were stationed all over the world until finally settling in Carlisle in 1975.

Don received his Army commission as an Armor Second Lieutenant in April 1951. During his career as an Army officer, he served with the 11th Armored Cavalry in Ft. Carson, Colorado, the 66th Tank Battalion in post-War West Germany, the 82nd Airborne Division in Ft. Bragg, the 7th Infantry Division in South Korea, the 25th Infantry Division in South Vietnam, and as Battalion Commander of the 1st of the 33rd Armored Battalion in Gelnhausen, West Germany. While in command, the Battalion won the US Army Europe Tank Gunnery Championship. He also attended a number of service schools at Fort Knox, Fort Leavenworth, and the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. He earned a Master’s Degree in Education while teaching ROTC at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. And in what was a bit of a surprise to him, Don became fluent in Thai at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

His final tour of duty was as Garrison Commander at Carlisle Barracks. Don retired in 1980 after 34 years of military service. Following his retirement, he worked 10 years in the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. He also earned a Master’s Degree in Library Science from Shippensburg University. Although he never worked as a librarian, those skills served him well in managing his very large and well=loved collection of books, ranging from military history to Sherlock Holmes to Tolkien.

After leaving PEMA, Don enjoyed retirement for many years. He and Zetta were active parishioners at St. Patrick’s in Carlisle, where he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He was also a longtime active member of the Carlisle Rotary Club. He enjoyed visiting battlefields with family members, particularly reenacting Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. He made dollhouses for his granddaughters and was an avid model railroad hobbyist.

Don is survived by his three children: Anne Swartz of Goodyear, Arizona, Michael Esper of Carlisle, and Nancy Gessner of Canton, Ohio, and their spouses Mark, Fran, and Bob. He is also survived by six grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren, as well as many nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents, two brothers, and his beloved wife Zetta Ann.

Don lived a long and extraordinary life. In remembering him, recall the words of St. Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Don’s family would like to take this opportunity to thank the staff at the Thornwald Home who cared for him with kindness and affection in his later years, particularly during the COVID pandemic.

Don will be buried at a future date at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. A Mass will be held at St. Patrick’s Church in Carlisle preceding the burial.

Funeral arrangements have been entrusted to the Hoffman Funeral Home, Carlisle. If desired, memorial contributions may be made to the Army Heritage and Education Center Foundation at

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