Whether it was piloting a tank destroyer across a river filled with mines, or escorting children across the street to school, Ralph Hayes, Jr., felt obliged to help.

"He was a very courteous, proud, loving man," said Beth Hayes of Santa Rosa.

Her husband, who had been living with Lewy body dementia for years, died last Wednesday at a care facility after he developed a respiratory infection.

He was 87.

Ralph Hayes will be remembered for his bravery in World War II and for the nearly four decades he worked for Farmers Insurance in Santa Rosa.

He was born on Sept. 30, 1924, in Amidon, N.D. His parents, who had seven children — all but one of them boys — were ranchers, until drought and shady bank deals drove them west in a Model T.

They settled in Santa Rosa because they had other family there. Hayes, who was known by his nickname, "Happy," learned to drive a tractor at the Rohnert Seed Farm, which was the precursor to the city of Rohnert Park.

Hayes was a standout basketball player at Santa Rosa High School and at Santa Rosa Junior College. Then in 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Hayes' father, who fought in the trenches during World War I, encouraged his son to volunteer for one of the Army's armored divisions. The son complied, and still found himself on the front lines.

Beth Hayes said her husband participated in the invasion of Normandy and served with the Third Army under the command of Gen. George Patton. She said he also was one of the first Americans to enter the town of Bonnetable in France.

Hayes was wounded by a mortar shell strike. When he rejoined his unit, he recovered an abandoned tank destroyer and drove it across a mined river. He was later given the Bronze Star for the effort.

Hayes spent several months as a prisoner of war after the Germans surrounded his regiment in Drusenheim, France, his wife said. He and his fellow captives earned their freedom when the guards surrendered.

Hayes came home to Santa Rosa with several scars on his head, the result of German soldiers striking him with their rifle butts. His family wonders if maybe that contributed to him developing dementia later in life.

Hayes helped raise four children and had a successful career as an insurance broker, before he retired in 1993.

He volunteered to help Doyle Park Elementary School students cross Montgomery Drive and also with the Sonoma County Humane Society, a job that took him door to door encouraging people to get licenses for their pets.

Besides his wife, Hayes is survived by a brother, Charles Hayes of Santa Rosa, and four children: David Hayes of Denmark, Jone Hayes of Cotati and Doug and Roger Hayes of Santa Rosa.

The family is planning a private memorial.

— Derek Moore