On a beautiful May Monday morning, a large crowd gathered on the west side of the Memphis city square to mark a pair of milestone celebrations. The Wallace W. Gillespie Memorial Post #4958 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars hosted the 70th annual Memorial Day services for the community as the nation marked the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day, which dates back to 1866.
Judge E. Richard Webber highlighted the history of the event, noting the first recorded observance was in Waterloo, NY on May 5, 1866. (VIEW THE JUDGES’S FULL SPEECH HERE)
According to the VFW magazine, the idea was fostered by Henry C. Wells, who wished to honor the small New York town’s 58 sons, fathers and brothers who had perished fighting in the Civil War. John B Murray, commander of the 148th New York Volunteer Infantry, organized what is now considered the first Memorial Day service.
Webber noted that two years later, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30th 1868, as a day to decorate the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country, but the holiday was largely unrecognized in the south until after World War I.
The judge thanked the crowd for allowing him to be the guest of honor for this 70th annual local commemoration.
“I first ask all of you for a few moments of personal privilege,” he stated. “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.”
At the center of the annual ceremony is the war memorial, located on the southwest lawn of the Scotland County Courthouse. Veterans Mike Stephenson and Don Norton did the honors of placing the memorial wreath amidst the structure’s four pillars as part of the opening ceremony.
“For 11 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,” Webber told the crowd. “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.”
A Japanese intern summed it up pretty well for the judge. Horoyuki Ogawa, who visited the District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri from Japan and worked with the judge, established a bond with Webber, which resulted in regular return trips to the United States as well as a visit by the judge overseas.
“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.”
Freedom has come at a cost, and Webber challenged the audience not to take it for granted.
“How are we doing with our inherited responsibilities; with the time they purchased for us with their service?” Webber asked the crowd. “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?”
The judge highlighted the commitment to service demonstrated by military service personnel who have returned home. He praised the efforts of local VFW, including the volunteer ambulance service that was provided by the organization as well as the members continued commitment to local youth.
He challenged listeners to show a similar commitment to veterans, confessing regret that Vietnam veterans were so often treated so shamefully upon their return home, a situation the judge says is happening again today with many veterans.
“There is a growing number of homeless veterans in the larger cities who suffer unjustly,” said Webber. “In St. Louis, it is common to encounter veterans begging at busy intersections. It seems unimaginable we have become a society who sends our best young men and women into harm’s way, and tolerate 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 God’s 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 to 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 nations 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.”