Freedom Thank You

November 9, 2010

Dears Sponsors & Volunteers,

How does one say thank you to more that 150 volunteers and 35 sponsors who helped to make the R. W. Baker Freedom Tribute a success. Really, words can not express the gratitude and gratefulness we feel.

When this endeavor started more than a year ago, I really wanted to figure out a way to give back and show our gratitude for 125 years of support from the community. I felt that The Wall in one way or another would do just that!

Wednesday started the event with The Wall arriving in Suffolk on time; The Wall was escorted by the Suffolk Police Department, the Suffolk Fire Department, 60-plus motorcycles and the horse-drawn hearse to Bennett's Creek Park. Once we made it to the park, we were welcomed by American Veterans Traveling Tribute team John and Kevin.

Thursday started off wet and chilly, but that did not stop the 20 volunteers led by Vincent Janowiak and the ladies and gentlemen from our military. They came from the USS Nassau, JEB Little Creek / Fort Story, ACB-2, Training Command, LC, the U.S. Army School of Music, Board of Inspection and Survey to help assemble The Wall. A small band of onlookers followed as we sensed that it was going to be an emotional and moving weekend. Even prior to having The Wall installed, two military personnel patiently waited to place scrolls by The Wall to commemorate their fellow soldiers. At that time, I knew that all the hard work leading up to the weekend would be well worth the effort! By the end of the weekend, we had a collection of American flags, letters, toys, pictures and flowers marking spots on The Wall that were special to our visitors.

Once Friday came, all the volunteers knew just what to do and the weekend ran on autopilot. The ladies of the Windsor Womans Club took care of all the food that was coming in from the food sponsors and made sure no one went unfed. The Bank of America volunteers, led by Denis Confer, and the American Legion Post, led by Joe Garlitz, kept the carts rolling and escorted visitors to The Wall. The part-time staff of R.W. Baker & Co. skillfully supervised the parking. Joe Johnson somehow managed to be everywhere and helped out with whatever was needed. The women of Suffolk 60 Care staffed computers to help families and comrades locate names on The Wall. Robin Magrisi of Big Top Marketing & Communications made sure we were on the news (TV and paper). EVERYONE did their part and helped to make the weekend a success. I want to say a special thank you Jeanne Banks for her hard work, helping me with programs and keeping the event running smoothly from start to finish.

As the saying goes, "behind every good man is a great woman". I would be remiss if I did not thank Kelly, my wife, for putting up with me for many months as I obsessed over every detail of the weekend and for all her hard work prior to, during and after the event. To my father, not only has he kept the funeral home running the last 40 years, but he supported me from the beginning in our effort to host this event. Marie's help with the food and fundraising also was significant.

I gratefully recognize our sponsors that helped make this event a success. From the food to the cash donations, we could not have done it without the help of the sponsors. We had Starbucks step in at the last minute to provide coffee around the clock, The Thomas Alphin Family of Commonwealth Cotton Gin provided cases of water for the volunteers, and Tidewater Doves added their special touch with three dove releases and Bugles Across America delivered stunning renditions of TAPS.

Last but not least, our speakers, special guests and music! Wow, what do I say? We began the weekend with Dr. Zinerva (Zin) White, Jr. Dr. White came early and spent the day visiting, taking in the event and sharing stories and experiences. After a brief weather delay, he delivered a powerful message about how Freedom is not Free and finished with a moving rendition of "America the Beautiful". The belated arrival of the Marine Corps Reserve Band from New Orleans on Thursday was well-worth the wait, and they were even more stunning in their dress uniforms on Friday. Thank you to Pam English for making it possible for the band to come and play.

Friday's and Saturday's speakers kept the spirit of the weekend high. Delegate S. Chris Jones and Colonel Kevin D. King also fought the rain on Friday, but gave very powerful and meaningful talks about our military and the significance it has in our area. Delegate Jones thanked our military for helping to protect and serve our country and recounted how he is honored to serve them as a state Delegate. Col. King mentioned that the young ladies and gentlemen are top notch and that many joined after 9/11 with a desire to serve and protect our country.

Gerald Rhoads and Lt. General William J. Rew took to the podium on Saturday. Gerald Rhoads spoke touchingly on the price of losing loved ones. Lt. General William J. Rew talked about his family and how many generations have served in the military. He discussed what his daughter is now going through in the ROTC program in college and about how proud he is, not only of his daughter, but all the young men and women in our military, some of whom have served 8 tours and still do not want to leave their comrades. We had surprise guest speaker on Saturday in 11 year-old Justin Hudson. He is a young man determined to pay tribute to our nation's veterans. He made and carries an autograph book everywhere he goes and asks veterans to sign it. He spoke about his many encounters with veterans and the different pictures and medals given to him as a result.

Sunday began with an outdoor church service led by Retired Colonel Basil Ballard, Rev. Michael D. Halley and Rev. T. Floyd Irby. In the service, we learned about Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers and their military background and, most notably, the lyrics to TAPS. 

Day is done,
gone the sun,
From the hills,
from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well,
safely rest,
God is nigh.

Fading light.
Dims the sight.
And a star.
Gems the sky.
Gleaming bright.
From afar.
Drawing nigh.
Falls the night.

Thanks and praise,
For our days,
Neath the sun,
Neath the stars,
Neath the sky,
As we go,
This we know,
God is nigh.

At 1 pm, the "Ride of Honor" rolled out of the funeral home downtown. As the bikes made their way into the park, visitors backed up and made space in front of the Wall so they could parade along its length. With the rumble of the engines, the flags flying and the salutes from bikers to onlookers, you could not help but have an overwhelming sense of pride for those that gave all!

We ended our speaking engagements with a real bang: Dame Mary S. Barraco talked about her experience of being a POW in WWII and her/our fight for freedom. There was not a dry eye in the park, and there was a roar of applause at the end of her talk. She truly is a remarkable woman and should be commended for her activism, bravery and her fight for Freedom. We then closed out the weekend with great patriotic music from the Tidewater Concert Band with TAPS fittingly performed as the final number.

After all was said and done, Troop 911 helped to take down and pack up the Wall and the displays. We said farewell as the Wall rolled out of town toward its next destination.

Thank you to everyone that helped, sponsored, volunteered and shared stories over this weekend. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people attended the event and I truly feel we not only paid great honor to all our veterans but we helped many pay tribute to their family and comrades that gave all! What was originally intended simply to celebrate the 125th anniversary celebration of R. W. Baker & Co. Funeral Home and Crematory became, in so many ways, something very special to many, many people. 


Blake Baker