BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Weather may have canceled the Memorial Day Parade, but the ceremony went on inside the Berkeley Heights Town Hall Meeting Room to honor our Hometown Heroes on Monday.
There was no doubt that both young and old parade goers were disappointed with the canceling of the parade for the second consecutive year due to anticipated weather. It was not an easy decision for the Recreation Department Special Events and Memorial Day Parade Committees to make after volunteers spent hours of planning the event that typically would showcase the pride of Berkeley Heights.
The sense of patriotism has been elevated through the efforts of the Veterans Memorial Park Renewal Committee and “Operation: We Remember” to keep the memories of our local Hometown Heroes alive. This heightened patriotism is felt in Berkeley Heights with our without a parade. On this Memorial Day, citizens were encouraged to “Pause and Remember” those veterans who have sacrificed the most -- our Hometown Heroes.
Take a stroll or drive down the parade route that begins at the VFW Post on Locust Avenue, down Snyder Avenue to Springfield Avenue -- and read the names on the 128 Hometown Hero banners that include familiar names of neighbors and relatives. Experience the beauty of the newly renovated park adorned with American flags throughout its flower beds and the five memorial wreaths that stand by the five monuments -- and observe the memory of the deceased members of the military who fought for our freedom. You are reminded to “Pause and Remember,” not only on this day, but throughout the year.
The important message to honor and remember our Hometown Heroes resonates in Berkeley Heights.
Memorial Day Parade Committee member Dennis Ryan opened the ceremony offering profound "thanks to those who have given their last full measure in service to our great nation.”
Members of VFW Post 6259 filled the dais while Mayor Bob Woodruff, Township Council President Marc Faecher, Council Vice President Jeanne Kingsley, Councilmen Peter Bavoso, Manny Couto, Michael D’Aquila and Craig Pastore sat in the front row. Several members of the Police Department, Fire Department, Rescue Squad and DPW were present. A crowd of about 200 people filled the room to capacity.
This year's Grand Marshal Douglas Garno, who served as a Major in the Air Force during the Korean War from 1951 to 1956, was introduced by Mayor Woodruff.
Woodruff continued with the "Hometown Hero" theme, and spoke of how the new Hometown Hero banners are bringing the stories of these veterans to life. "Walking around town, looking at these banners, many names looking familiar – dads, uncles, grandfathers, young kids who I just watched play ball at GL four or five years ago. I thought to myself everyone up there has a story," he said. -- "Millions have served in this country and many did not come back. We are here today to address that, to address those who have sacrificed their lives and who have sacrificed a portion of their life to step up when asked to serve."
Woodruff brought one of the names to life. -- WWII veteran Andrew Haspel was 21 years old when he enlisted in the United States Air Force. "He flew 25 missions as a bombardier over Hitler’s fortress yard," said Woodruff. "He was 23 at the time, he was the oldest individual in his plane. The life expectancy of a B17 was 10 missions and he made it through 25. He came home and no one knew about it."
"These are the millions that just came home to be a citizen. -- That’s what the American soldier does -- he steps up, she steps up, they do their job, and if they are lucky, they come home," said Woodruff.
There is a story on every one of those banners -- whether that story is of a 27 year old kid now in Afghanistan or a 99 year old man [like Haspel] who flew as a bombardier 70 years ago -- there’s a common theme -- it’s about liberty, it’s about freedom, it’s about a desire to step up when called upon to serve, said Woodruff.
Veterans Memorial Renewal Committee Chair Gay Hollowell spoke on behalf of her committee that worked tirelessly to have the Hometown Hero banners created and hung in time for Memorial Day. She thanked her co-chair Trent Fettes, a Marine Corp Veteran and a Berkeley Heights Police Officer. The banners were generously donated by resident Larry Cohen, whose father's banner proudly hangs along the route.
Hollowell, a daughter of a Marine Corp Captain, spoke emotionally of the sacrifice our veterans make. "Today we honor those that gave that sacrifice – today, in Berkeley Heights, our Hometown Hero banners remind us of those that stood for us – some never came home – like the DelDuca brothers who died within four months of each other during WWII. Others return but were forever changed. -- We are proud to honor them." She reminded the crowd, "Our veterans need our support -- they carry the burden of war, of loss, of sacrifice every day."
Ted Romankow, who was instrumental in leading the restoration of Veterans Memorial Park, honored Leon Ciferni, who passed away shortly after the 2016 dedication of the park. Ciferni was an inspiration to rebuilding the memorial, said Romankow. "I remember the day he worked with Vito [Mondelli] in putting up the flag pole, many years later when the memorial fell into disrepair, he talked about doing something about it. He was the first one to volunteer to make a change. -- He remembered his devotion to the men and women who have served."
Romankow honored this "hometown hero" and presented the Ciferni family members with the American flag that hung over the State Capital the day of Ciferni's death.
VFW member Stephen Falk advised the crowd of the Friends of Berkeley Heights Post 6259 campaign and invited them to join by making a donation for a Poppy, as Falk simply put it, "to help the post exist."
Post Commander Tom Lombardi provided the solemn statistic that 23 veterans take their own life each day -- the war never leaves you, you must learn to deal with it, he said. -- "It never goes away." While veterans are honored on this one day every year, Lombardi reminded the room that being a combat soldier, "We remember the brave men everyday of our lives. If you were in combat, you never forget."
The ceremony opened with the invocation and dedication prayers by Reverend Diane Ruffle, Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pledge of Allegiance was led by Council President Marc Faecher. The musical segment of the ceremony included the singing of the national anthem by Elefante Music Memorial Day Quartet and a medley of patriotic songs by members of Hickory Tree Chorus [Shayna Atkinson, Rita Peyton, Carolyn Schmidt and Rosemarie Gerber].
The ceremony concluded with the playing of Amazing Grace by GL Highlander Band bagpiper Sam Mustacchi. The annual Berkeley Heights Memorial Day Ceremony formally ended with a benediction by the Union Village Rev. Debra Whitten.
The ceremony was presented by Tom Barton and the Berkeley Heights Special Events Committee of the Recreation Department; Dennis Ryan and the Memorial Day Parade Committee; and Ted Romankow and Gay Hollowell and the Memorial Park Renewal Project Committee.