Caring for his grandchildren on a daily basis was not how Eric Prelow, 48, envisioned spending his retirement after 21 years of Army service. But he had no choice.
“My purpose in life is raising Gracie and Prince to get what’s deserved for them,” Prelow said.
A single grandfather, Prelow has raised Gracie Wilson, 11, and Prince Wilson, 10, for the last decade, and one is a special-needs child. He retired from the Army in 2009 and also started a small lawn service.
According to 2010 U.S. Census data, almost 5 million American children under age 18 live in grandparent-headed households.
To show appreciation for his efforts, a surprise party was held Saturday in his honor at the Hilton Garden Inn in Killeen. The party also celebrated Veterans Day,
A crowd of 50 family and friends cheered when Prelow arrived with friend, Dre Owens, who had said they were going to a meeting.
“We’re here to celebrate this good man, a great father and grandfather and friend to all,” Owens said.
A shocked Prelow, completely overwhelmed, cried and hugged everyone.
“I never expected this in a million years and I’m pinching myself to see if it’s real,” he said.
Several community leaders praised Prelow. Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra thanked him for his military service and said he overcame many challenges.
“Eric exemplifies what people in Killeen are about,” Segarra said.
Then he presented Prelow with commemorative coins representing the key to the city.
“You are the epitome of what is a great African-American father and grandfather,” said Claudia Brown, Bell County justice of the peace.
Longtime friend Phyllis Jones, Central Texas area coordinator for Texas NAACP, presented a letter acknowledging his accomplishments along with a gift certificate.
“I’m just instilling in the youngsters what was instilled in me,” Prelow said.
Beaming with pride, Sandra Hargrove, Prelow’s mother, said men don’t come any better.
“Many men have the opportunity to do what you’re doing but don’t, and those kids would have been lost in the system without you,”she said.
The party took two years of planning with some guests driving from Shreveport, Louisiana, Prelow’s hometown, while others came from Austin, Dallas and San Antonio.
Family members made the buffet dinner, plus had a Dallas Cowboy decorated cake, his favorite team.
Owens, one of three party planners, met Prelow 15 years ago when both served in the Army.
“Eric deals with a lot but never complains,” Owens said.
Tears and laughter flowed as the tributes poured in.
Nephew Jamarcus Johnson often leans on his uncle for advise.
“He’s the best kind of a man,” Johnson said.
Fellow veteran Daniel Wallace grew up across the street from Prelow and told stories from their 41-year friendship.
“He’s always been there for me and everyone else,” Wallace said.
“I love Pa Pa so much because he takes very good care of us,” said Gracie Wilson.
The evening ended with a special gift of a ring with the word DAD in diamonds presented to him.
“I’m so blessed,” Prelow said.