The following is the speech presented by Judge E. Richard Webber at the 70th Annual memorial Day Service in Memphis, Missouri.
Gary, (Presiding Judge Gary Dial who introduced Webber) I still get around the State, some and know how highly you are regarded by the Missouri Supreme Court. The Court is comfortable in transferring you to other counties to handle difficult cases. Good for you and for us. I always find it pleasing when someone exaggerates my merit. Thank you.
I first ask all of you for a few moments of personal privilege. I want to express, as best I can, my most sincere appreciation and thanks to you for loving and caring for Peggy, Erin, Nicki and me during the most important years of my life. Here, as a farm boy, I learned life’s most meaningful lessons, with the best parents, received my elementary education at Prairie View District No. 27, a one room school, and attended high school at Memphis High. It was here where I experienced the joy of 28 years of married life with an angel, was blessed with two beautiful daughters who filled our lives with indescribable love and accomplishments; won my first jury trial in this building, which was to me the center of Justice, felt the sting of consequences of bad financial judgment, and firmly established my faith. It was here, I experienced the best part of my life. Thanks to all of you and all from this area which made that possible.
While the exact origin of Memorial Day is unknown, the first recorded observance was Waterloo, New York on May 5, 1866. General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in a speech declared “The 30th Day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion.. .” Southern states generally refused to acknowledge the day until World War I when the day was set aside to honor all who died fighting any war. Later the day of remembrance was changed to the last Monday in May. It is a high personal honor to be part of this annual celebration which has been recognized State wide as one of the premier Memorial Day events. For 70 consecutive years, this ceremony has been faithfully observed.
For eleven and a half years I walked, almost daily, by this monument on my way from my law office at 110 W. Monroe Street to the courthouse. I frequently stopped, to review the names of the heroes recorded on the granite pillar. Of those whose names were inscribed, who did not come home from wars to see this monument dedicated in their honor, I wondered what they were thinking in the last moments of their lives. Were they thinking of constitutional rights they swore to defend at the cost of their lives; freedom of speech, freedom to worship the God of choice, or freedom to assemble to express views in opposition to authority. I concluded long ago, they were most likely thinking of parents, brothers, sisters and wives they left behind. I believe they were thinking of this old square, where they spent time with family and friends in and around this space which was filled with cars on Saturday night. Maybe some were thinking about experiencing holding hands with a girlfriend at the Time Theatre, or of resting in a hammock after a hard day’ s work on a warm summer evening. They were, I believe, thinking about the time they would be returning here to resurrect their lives which were interrupted by the call to duty which they honored. Irrespective of what they were thinking, with their blood they ensured for us these rights I mentioned, and others guaranteed by the Constitution.
The District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri has an internship program, where law students come from universities, and young lawyers from foreign countries, come to our Court to be trained in the federal practice of law. Hiroyuki Ogawa from Japan was supposed to serve from August through December, but he liked the work so much, he gave up scheduled travel time to tour the United States to stay in Chambers, until March 24th, two days before he returned to Japan. We became good friends, and until he married, he came back and stayed at our house every year for a week. I visited him one time in Japan. One day when we were driving to court I asked, “Yuki, why do you so highly praise this country? When you come here you seem so excited to be in this Country. We have uncontrollable violence, poverty and danger on the streets.” Why do you like coming here so much? I barely spoke the last syllable and he exclaimed “Freedom”. His ancestors were responsible for inflicting so much grief to so many in this Country, and he, now a law school professor in Japan, so deeply appreciated what so many here regard as a mere birthright. I often wonder, do we, who have been given so much by the sacrifices of those we honor today, really comprehend and appreciate what comrades in arms, these heroes, did for us.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men art create equal, they 1,, are endowed by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I repeat these words from the Declaration of Independence when I have the privilege of presiding at naturalization ceremonies, swearing-in new citizens from many countries. Soon after my service began as a federal judge, I attended a naturalization ceremony so I would know how to conduct those ceremonies in the future. Seated in the back of a courtroom, I rose with all assembled to repeat the pledge of allegiance. As all of the new citizen stood, each proudly waiving the flags presented to them, because of a lump in my throat, I could not speak the words of the pledge I learned at Prairie View. I saw before me a hundred new Americans who had abandoned families, property, allegiance to kings and their sovereign country to breath the air of freedom, I felt, and still do, my citizenship came too easily. These new citizens take an oath to discharge duties, including performing military service, to uphold the Constitution; they are committed to uphold what those we honor today gave everything to protect. It is my hope we, like these new citizens, will answer any call to service in the future. More than one million Americans died so we might continue to observe what Thomas Jefferson wrote over two hundred years ago.
For all our service men and women have preserved and protected, it was beyond their call to provide us with perpetual security from all enemies. They gave all they had to give to those of us who remained, and those who would come later, an opportunity to build on what they achieved at such high cost and sacrifice. Again, how are we doing with our inherited responsibilities; with the time they purchased for us with their service? It is a high privilege to stand here, surrounded by flags they saluted, to speak of love and respect and appreciation to so many, for all who gave so much. But memorial words are too cheap a response for what they did. It is well to be introspective and examine, as individuals, what we have done and what we are doing for America with the precious time they gave to us. Do we reach out with a helping hand to others, using our strength and the resources with which we have been so richly blessed, to help others, less able to care for themselves. Have we really appreciated what those who served in the military accomplished for us, and are we doing, whatever we can do to make the United States of America all it can be?
On my desk I have a photograph of two slain Marines lying in the sands of Iwo Jima. They never had the opportunity to return in victory to their loved ones; go to college, learn a trade, start a business, and if they had children before they enlisted, they never had the opportunity to see their children participate in state track meets, play softball or baseball, play basketball, gain professional standing or have grandchildren and learn of their medals and awards of achievement. Can each of us honestly say in good faith, in memory of those we honor, “I have kept the faith, I have done everything I can do to make America better; I have earned your sacred trust. If we do not recognize the sacrifices so many have made for all Americans, if we do not turn away from giving our highest priorities to our self indulgences and embrace the principles purchased at the highest cost of the lives of the best among us, if we lose the vision of those who made the sacrifices so this Country could endure, if we continue to allow the role of God in our Country to diminish, if we do not every day, give of ourselves to perpetuate what they gained for us, we speak mere hollow words in their memory.
I have taken notice, those returning from military service maintain a commitment of continued service to others. I wonder if it is the experience of facing hostile challenges, and returning in the absence of comrades with a renewed sense of purpose that brings forth renewed service to others. Is it because of the appreciated opportunities they earned, thereby gaining greater appreciation of life when they saw life denied to others. Maybe it is the training and service to this country which give s them a sense of purpose, learned from adversity in the on discharge of duty. For as long as I can remember the men and women of the Wallace W. Gillespie Memorial Post 4958 of the VFW have served this community, individually and collectively, making their facilities available as a social center. When there has been a need, the VFW answers the call. Before there was an ambulance district, the VFW Post provided those services. Members recognize personal achievement of young men and women, rewarding them with no expectation of a response. For many years, VFW members speak of their service not in words, but by the way they conduct their lives. Thank you for your continued service, and for helping me when I needed you most.
It is also well today to give special recognition to the mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters of men and women who answered the call of America and never came home. On the morning of November 25, 1864, President Lincoln was informed by the Department of War, five sons of Lydia Bixby had been killed in the cause of the Union. His closing words in a letter delivered to her stated, “and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the alter of freedom.” It was later discovered two of her sons, Charles and Oliver were casualties, but his words speak to the inenarrable loss of those who mourn the rest of their lives for those who gave it all for all of us. In a United States Cemetery north of Florence Italy there are six medal of honor awardees, six sets of brothers five Tuskeegee Air men and six nurses included among the five thousand Americans who died in the Battle of the Appinines. It is well to remember all who gave the ultimate sacrifice as well as family members who grievingly suffered because of their loss. Recently, while waiting to board a flight in St. Louis, an Honor flight was returning from Washington D.C. Those assembled in the terminal applauded as each group of men and women, mostly in wheel chairs, came from the plane. That experience caused me to reflect on five of Scotland Counties’ best citizens, returned here for their memorial services during the Vietnam War. It is shameful, those who served in that War were never appropriately rewarded for their faithful service. As well as those who were treated unjustly, there is a growing number of homeless veterans in the larger cities who suffer unjustly. In St. Louis, it is common to encounter veterans begging at busy intersections. For the New Life Evangelistic Center, where police take the homeless for shelter, its director reported on May 16th, “I am writing you as we approach Memorial Day about a situation that is weighing very heavy on my heart right now. It’s our homeless veterans situation. These men and women who have so faithfully served our country in the military and put their lives on the line are in desperate need of help. While many services are provided during the day, so many of our veterans remain homeless at night.” It seems unimaginable we have become a society who sends our best young men and women into harm’s way, and tolerates their post service conditions of homelessness. They left their homes to serve, and should return with the expectation of having a home. Many die waiting to get an appointment at Veterans’ hospitals for medical care. In response to the question, how are we doing honoring those who served, who died for us so we could remain free, what answer other than, we must do better, is an honest response.
I wish I was gifted with the wisdom and eloquence to give you a proposed path we could follow, to individually repay those who have so unselfishly given us so much through military service to our country, but I fear that path will never lead to full satisfaction for their sacrifices. It is like Gods grace, what they did for us cannot be earned. We can reach out in loving care to those in need. We can do the work of our lives with dedication, remembering those who never had the opportunity earn and enjoy the bounty of their effort. We can serve on school boards, city councils, county courts and offices, seek election to state and federal offices with personal agendas to enhance the best interests of our fellow state and federal citizens; we can commit to give more to our nation than we expect to receive from it.
I now know what I will say in the future as I stop here and bow my head to honor those whose names are inscribed here, and for all who have similarly served. I will ask God to help all to do more, so that which so many have given will never be lost or forgotten. God bless our service men and women. God Bless America.