Memorial Day in Whitewater during the 2020 Coronavirus
My name is Steven R. Smith and I am the adjutant for William Graham Post 173 of the American Legion. We knew Memorial Day 2020 was going to be different. We just didn’t know how different. William Graham Post 173 of the American Legion in Whitewater sold its “clubhouse,” the Veteran’s Memorial Building due to declining membership numbers. We had 432 members in 1973 just after it was built. That number included WW I, WW II, Korean War, and Vietnam veterans. Due to a number of factors that afflict many organizations today our number has dwindled to around 60. For the first time in 50 years the annual Memorial Day observance would be held somewhere else. The “Old Armory” was the most fitting location and the parade route from the Cravath Lakefont parking lot down Fremont to Main to 2nd Street had been chosen. Since our commander, Steve Nass, was scheduled to speak in other communities in his senate district I was planning to speak about the traditional meaning of Memorial Day as a fitting way to honor those service members who gave their lives in the service of our nation. But I also was going to use this as an opportunity to remember those members of William Graham Post who were instrumental in the construction of the building we called “home” for 50 years.
Then COVID-19 AKA the Coronavirus hit. Schools were closed for the remainder of the school year. That means there would be no bands available for a parade. With the “Stay Safe at Home” order prohibiting group gatherings that also meant no Memorial Day Observance. According to Carol Cartwright of the Whitewater Historical Society this would probably be the first time since 1878 there would be no official city wide observance of Memorial Day. So in lieu of an actual observance I am taking this opportunity to provide a virtual Memorial Day observance.
The morning of Memorial Day at 10:00AM we begin gathering in the area of the Cravath Lakefront Parking lot. Band members of the high school and middle school find their respective groups. The convertibles used to transport the guest speaker, chaplain, and honored high school students show up driven by members of the DLK Enterprises and American Legion members. In the first car we seat the guest speaker and chaplain, and since I am the speaker this year and I am usually part of the Honor Guard we can put a student or two or three in there. I think this year that would be the American Legion Scholarship winner, Jillian Gibbs and the VFW Scholarship winner, Jacee Johnson. Next comes the High School Band and following the band in the next car we’ll put the Badger Girls State representatives, Kacie Carollo, Catherine Skindingsrude, and Brianna Staebler. Following Girls State will be the Badger Boys State representatives, William Hoffman and Carson Ellenwood. The last car will carry the American Legion Americanism Award winner, Morgan Stillwagon and the American Legion Outstanding Athlete, Jonathan (Jack) Mayer. The Whitewater Middle School band follows the cars and following the Middle School band are usually Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and anyone else who wants to march.
The parade is relatively short and ends at the Old Armory where the honored guests, Legion Members, the High School Band and other guests enter the building. We seat the high school students front and center and because we know these students are “the cream of the crop” they will be appropriately dressed. At 11:00 AM or once everyone is seated the master of ceremonies, this year I planned for the Commander of the VFW, Jason Dean (this may be the first he hears of it) to perform that function, will begin the ceremony with some opening remarks followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star Spangled Banner performed by the high school band. After the National Anthem the chaplain will give the invocation and everyone will be seated. The high school band will be asked to play a musical number after which most members will depart even though we wish they would stick around. The Master of Ceremonies will introduce our honored students and other special guests and then introduce the guest speaker. This year that would be me. Following my comments, hopefully not too long, we will recognize those Whitewater area veterans who have passed away this last year. This year the list numbers 31. Following the reading of those names the Honor Guard will fire a rifle salute and the bugler from the high school will play Taps. Following Taps the chaplain will offer the benediction and the ceremony will conclude.
As I said earlier in this piece I thought it would be appropriate to remember those members of William Graham Post who were instrumental in constructing the building before they fade from our memory. Before the Veteran’s Memorial Building, as it was “officially” known, the members of the American Legion first met, from 1919 to 1938 on the second floor of the building at 148 West Main Street. After the Armory was constructed as a WPA project (if you don’t know what the WPA was, look it up!) in 1938 the Legion was granted a basement room. In 1969 with membership exceeding 400, members decided to build a new home for the Post. The project was led by World War Veteran Jack Hale. His building committee:
Chairman – Jack Hale
Planning – Elmer Hanke, J.P. Hale
Finance – Clarence Peck, John Misener
Legal – Clark Dempsey, Robert Robinson
Bookkeepers – Clarence Stone, Lester Duesterbeck
Excavating – Gerald (Toby) Shroble, Roger Wiley, Marvin Homburg
Plumbing, Heating – Anton Geiser, Robert Boynton, Emil Stradinger
Block work – Maurice McQuade, Charles Cruse
Carpentry – Earl Maas, Anthony Rutoski
Materials – Don Hale, Anthony Willegal
Painting – Robert and Richard Kettwig
Roofing – Raymond Stritzel
Electric – Everhard Craig, Leonard Egnoski
Cleanup – Francis Kienbaum
Waterboy – J. Cox
General – Richard Frutiger
Publicity – Eugene Lee
These men were in charge of the areas noted and many other members were involved in every aspect of construction which kept the cost of the building low. They donated labor, materials and equipment and if you were a family member at the time they may have donated you too! There are others as well and I apologize if Jack didn’t mention them. I wasn’t here. There are, however a couple of people who also devoted a lot of time and other resources to the building over the years that need to be mentioned. They are Dave Kachel, whose generosity kept us afloat for years and whose sons are following in Dave’s footsteps and Kurt Troemel, who, even into his 90’s was still active, fixing stuff and giving advice, and Leo Perry.
The lot they purchased was the former site of the John Cahill home which was burned down by the fire department in 1969. The foundation sits on the footprint of that home. Members recycled material taken from old dormitories that were torn down to make way for new construction on campus. They also used an estimated 40,000 bricks from Old Main after the fire which destroyed the campus landmark. Boy Scout Troop 173 cleaned many of the bricks of old mortar before they could be used. By the end of 1970 the building was finished enough that on February 13, 1971 the Legion held a benefit dance for Bill Fero, a Whitewater soldier who lost his legs in Vietnam. The members made continuous improvements through the years helped tremendously by the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary. These ladies, through their fund raising efforts purchased pretty much whatever the Legion members, AKA their husbands, said they needed. We owe them a great debt of gratitude. In 1983 the Legion held a mortgage burning ceremony to celebrate paying off the last debt for the building.
That brings us to today. As I mentioned before, membership numbers peaked at 432 in 1973 and have been declining ever since. We ask ourselves, why? Going through the files I noticed a generational pattern of membership. My family for example, even though I’m not from here. I followed grandfathers, father, and uncles into the military. But I’m the only one of my generation and there is no one from the generations after me in the military. Some families have or have had a tradition of military service or maybe it was a tradition of being drafted. Coincidentally 1973 was also the last year of the draft and membership numbers have been declining ever since. Perhaps the lack of a major conflict, for which we may be thankful for or a strong enough sense of duty to serve our country, especially if you have other opportunities in civilian life that may take a priority over service. We still have a few young people joining the service, but they are the exception. We simply do not attract the numbers of veterans needed to support our large building. So the decision was made to sell the building and find a means with the proceeds of the sale to best honor and protect the investment made by our past membership and to serve the veterans of our community.
This concludes my comments and I would turn the program back over to the Master of Ceremonies.
So there you have it, a virtual Memorial Day Observance. Congratulations to the scholarship recipients, Girls and Boys State representatives, Americanism Award and Legion Athlete award winners and best of luck in the future! We hope and pray that next year at this time we will return to our tradition of having a Memorial Day Parade as in the past and this COVID 19 pandemic will be just another challenge we Americans have overcome!