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WWII vet defended his nation, but now fights bank for his home

Johnnie H. Hodges Sr. fought for his country in World War II.

Now he is fighting for his home.

The 90-year-old veteran sits in the living room of his Humboldt Parkway residence, the place he has called home for more than half a century, facing eviction as soon as Wednesday.

He says he prays for financial mercy.

“I worked a lifetime for this house, and I’d like to be here until I leave this world,” he said. “I fell behind on the mortgage when my wife was sick. She had Alzheimer’s disease.”

Hodges has debts totaling more than $70,000, and M&T Bank has delayed an auction on the property for more than a year in the hopes of making arrangements for a transition to other living arrangements for Hodges. But time has just about run out.

Hodges reaches from his chair and picks up a framed photograph on the side table.

“That’s her,” he said.

A black-and-white image of his wife, Flora, when she was 19 years old, gazes back at him from a time in their lives when they were just starting out.

Home from the Navy after serving on a troop transport ship in the Atlantic and Pacific, he soon found work at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, where he was the first African-American to serve as a foreman in the coke ovens. It is clear he would rather reflect on the long-ago days when he was bringing home a steady paycheck to support his wife and their two children.

The idea of being a “deadbeat” seems awkward and out of place to him. He lives a modest life with a picture-tube television, a nearby Bible and food delivered by Meals on Wheels. A cleaner comes in three times a week to tidy the house, which has oak trim and doors reflecting a time of past prosperity.

Public records show Hodges took out a second mortgage of $59,350 with M&T in 1996 on the 3,200-square-foot home with its empty second-floor apartment. Additional records reflect debts with two other financial institutions and a bankruptcy filing from 2010.

“I took out the second mortgage to do repairs to the front porch and inside the house,” Hodges explained.

For a time, he said, he made good on the monthly payments, but as the years passed, events conspired against him and money became scarce.

“I’d taken a lump sum when Bethlehem Steel closed, and I started working as a part-time school bus driver,” he said. “I’d work extra hours driving a bus and that helped with the bills. But when I was 85, they told me I couldn’t drive anymore because of my health. When my wife got sick, I had to spend money on medicines that the insurance didn’t cover. I was also ill for awhile.”

His only income is Social Security.

Hodges wants to strike a deal with the bank so that he can live out his days independently.

Legally, though, the house is no longer his, not since January 2014 when M&T took ownership through court proceedings. Records show Hodges’ collective debt is $73,096.32. A sheriff’s sale was set for Jan. 15 last year.

M&T Bank delayed the auction in the hopes of making arrangements for a transition to other living arrangements for Hodges.

Now, nearly 18 months later without any success, the bank has moved forward. City marshals arrived at Hodges’ residence Thursday and notified him that as of 9 a.m. Wednesday, he would have to be out of the house or be removed.

Bank officials say they cannot discuss details of Hodges’ circumstances because of confidentiality guidelines, but stressed that they have tried to work out the situation for a long period of time.

“We did work diligently with this borrower for a number of years to try and resolve this situation,” said Ann M. Schlifke, vice president and manager of mortgage and consumer lending. “M&T reached out to several nonprofit agencies in an attempt to make this transition seamless.”

Among the agencies that have attempted to assist Hodges are the Veterans One-Stop Center and Erie County Senior Services, according to Robin Hodges, who says she was unaware of her father’s financial situation. “He never told me, and I didn’t find out until last year.”

She said she is willing to take out a mortgage to cover her father’s debts, but the court rejected her proposal.

She, too, is appealing to the bank to let her father spend his final days in the house.

Her father says he remains hopeful he can reach some sort of arrangement.

He says he can’t imagine living anywhere else as he steps out onto his sweeping, circular front porch that looks out on the Scajaquada Expressway. Slipping back to thoughts of happier times, he recalls when Humboldt Parkway was filled with grass and trees instead of the constant sight and sound of motor vehicles.

“You know, when they put in that expressway, they moved the houses back on the other side of the parkway,” he said. “When there was the park, my wife would take the babies out there. It was a beautiful park, really nice.”

But what about Wednesday?

He smiles as he takes a seat on the porch.

“It’s gonna work out. I have faith,” Hodges said. “God has the final say.”