WEST ORANGE, NJ - Several towns throughout New Jersey have installed banners on their Main Street honoring Veterans. Anyone driving through the downtown corridor in West Orange will notice a new addition on many of the utility poles. The Downtown West Orange Alliance recently installed Hometown Hero banners honoring Veterans here in West Orange. They begin in the Valley section and continue all along Main Street to the end near Eagle Rock Avenue. These banners feature pictures of West Orange residents who served in various branches of the military from World War I to the present day. So far 26 banners have been installed and more are planned as part of an ongoing memorial.
Hometown Heroes was introduced back in February by the DWOA when the first group of banners were ordered. After experiencing some delays and setbacks due to the world wide pandemic those banners finally arrived and were installed this past Wednesday. The program is intended as a living memorial to all former and current service men and woman from West Orange. Each banner is in the same patriotic style featuring a photo of the individual in uniform with their name, branch of service, and era of service in which they served.
The banners measure a large 30" x 60" in size and are a stunning sight to see in person. The cost of $200 per banner is paid for by family members of the veterans whose name is seen on the bottom of the banner as the sponsor. Donations were also generously made to the program in West Orange by those with no military family members to help fund the cost for others. Any West Orange resident who has served or is serving in any branch of the military is eligible to for a banner purchase.
The West Orange banners so far installed represent military service personnel from World War I to those presently on active duty in the global war on terror. Since this program is ongoing anyone who would like to participate in the next round is welcomed to join. To be included with the next order of additional banners simply fill out the form on the web site of the Downtown West Orange Alliance at: DowntownWO.com. Complete detailed instructions with an order form are on the web site. Those without Internet access can call the DWOA directly at (973) 325 4109 for assistance in ordering a banner. There is no deadline to participate and the banners are anticipated to stay up for a least the next year and likely longer. When they are eventually taken down they will be returned to the sponsoring family as a keepsake.
One of the banners features Ralph Wetzel a retired plumbing contractor who has lived in West Orange since the late 1950s. Full disclosure he is my beloved father-in-law. His banner was sponsored by his three daughters Debbie, Darlene, and Elena. He is a Korean War Veteran who was stationed with the US Army in Germany. The girls took their father and mother Lucy, his wife, to see the banner in a surprise and joyful unveiling where it was difficult to hold back tears of pride filled admiration.
The reaction of the Wetzel sisters is typical of family members upon seeing their loved one displayed on a Hometown Hero banner. Former West Orange Fire Chief Pete Smeraldo whose father-in-law Richard C. Browne is on display on the corner of Lindsley Avenue summed it up in a few words," It looks awesome."
Donald and Suzanne Pennell whose son Dylan is on active duty in the US Navy sponsored a banner placed in front of town hall. Upon seeing the banner the proud Navy mom stated with a smile spanning from ear to ear, " I'm crying of course, Donald and I are so proud and so grateful to West Orange and everyone who helped this happen." Similar sentiments of gratitude were consistently posted and repeated as a common theme posted in several West Orange based Facebook groups.
James Sheeran is a decorated WWII veteran and former West Orange Mayor. His banner sponsored by daughters Kim Sheeran Zoller and Jaime (name spelled correctly) Sheeran Maniatis appropriately overlooks Veterans Memorial Park on Main Street. Maniatis send me a text sharing her thoughts,. She wrote, " Wow Joe my deep appreciation. Amazing and incredible work you all have done here. I feel a humble feeling and tears in my heart, as I write this to you. Sensing my dear dad's presence so close with love and the gratitude he wants to share with everyone, Thank you once again with deep gratitude and all wishes of blessings."
To all our veterans, rest easy, your memory will not be forgotten nor will your sacrifice ever be minimized on our watch. Welcome home and we got your back hometown heroes.
Joseph Fagan is the official historian of West Orange Township and wrote four books on the subject. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.