Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

May 26, 2001


For $64,000, which city was the first to celebrate Memorial Day?

A. Waverly, Minnesota

B. Waterloo, New York

C. Columbus, Mississippi

D. 25 other U.S. cities

Hmmm . . . My first guess would be Waverly, because it's the best.

I remember that the Howard Lake High School Band always came and marched for us. I remember the voices of Pauline Claessens and Ann Happe calling out the names of our dead, and hearing the response "Present."

Jim Kemp and I both remember Ann Althoff's recitation of "In Flander's Field," a poem written especially for Memorial Day. The Sisters had assigned it for Ann to memorize and recite, because Ann's father, Joe Althoff, was a World War One veteran.

Dan Herbst also thinks it all started in Waverly. His advice to everyone is to return home for that day for certain. People come from all over the world. So, it must have started in Waverly.

But Lyndon Johnson, when he was president, proclaimed Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day. We Texas Democrats know he always told the truth. History is never simple.

Columbus, Mississippi, has a strong claim. On April 25, 1866, when the spring flowers were first blooming, a group of African-American ladies and their children carried blossoms, on that Sunday afternoon after church, to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh ­ fresh graves.

Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected, because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of those barren graves, the women and children placed flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

If our answer is any of the 25 other U.S. cities, we need to be warned that some of those places have liars contests as part of their annual celebrations. There is a lesson in the fact that at least forty towns claim to be the burial place of Sacagawea, the Shosone woman who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Most small towns in the South have signs on their outskirts proclaiming themselves as the "Vacation Center of the South."

Both Cuero, Texas and Worthington, Minnesota claim to be the turkey capital of the world. Every year, a Texas turkey races a Minnesota turkey down main street. (In fact, one year in Cuero, Texas, someone tossed their champ from the roof of the bowling alley, not realizing that domestic turkeys can't fly worth a dang. This was the inspiration for the WKRP television sit-com plot.

There is no such contest for Memorial Day, but everybody from Waverly knows we don't need a test with our memories so tightly wrapped around it all, especially the awesome presence of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was, more often than not, our speaker when he could easily have been on national television at Arlington National Cemetery. Surely, we are the first and the best.

But my "final answer?" Columbus, Mississippi.

And not just because it is politically correct to mix white and black, north and south, Union and Confederate in one grand ritual observance with flowers, patriotic speeches, rifle salutes and Taps.

It's my favorite because I remember a picture I once saw of a Memorial Day gathering in Bardstown, Kentucky. A Kentucky friend of mine, John Rolf, showed it to me. I had a grandfather in the Union Army, but he had a grandfather in both armies, one on his mother's side and one on his father's.

The picture John Rolf has is of the men of the town, all posing together in the stands of the local baseball field; the men in blue and the men in grey. They had all just finished marching down main street for their Memorial Day. The year was sometime in the 1870's. They were friends again. His two grandfathers were in the picture: one in blue and the other in grey.


This year the honorable Tom Kelly, county attorney for Wright County, will give the address in Waverly. In 1999, my brother John O'Leary was the speaker. It was the grandest honor our family ever had, the fact that he was selected.

You can all be proud

By John B. O'Leary, M.D.

You can all be proud to be taking part in the celebration of Memorial Day in Waverly. You can be very proud, because each and every one of you has come here to honor the memory of someone you have known. It may be someone whose name appears on one of these crosses. It may be someone named on a monument in the cemeteries.

But regardless of who it is, or where they may rest, you can be proud because they all shared a common attribute ­ the courage to defend a principle.

To understand why I speak of the courage to defend a principle, let me take you back to the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to a high area of ground near the town, an area known as Cemetery Ridge.

Let me take you back in time, to the morning of July 2, 1863, when 262 young men from Minnesota, members of the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, were ordered to hold Cemetery Ridge, against an attacking force of 1500 Rebel troops.

By holding the ridge line against those impossible odds, the 262 brave Minnesotans not only turned the tide of the Battle of Gettysburg, but the victory at Gettysburg changed the course of the whole Civil War.

At sunset that evening, only 47 men were left to stand roll call, out of the 262 who had entered into battle that morning. The government of the United States honored the courage of those 47 young men, by naming Minnesota's Viking Division the 47th Infantry Division.

Those soldiers of the Civil War shared something with the Minnesotans that we are honoring here today. Bravery, yes, but bravery in the sense of the courage to defend a principle.

Those men fought to defend the principle that all men are created equal. They fought and died to protect poor, black refugees who had been fleeing north at the rate of 50,000 a year, to escape lives of slavery on the southern plantations.

Now, in our minds, let us move forward from the time of the Civil War to what is happening in Yugoslavia.

Today's airmen, like the brave Minnesotans on Cemetery Ridge, are fighting to defend the same important principle, the principle that all men are created equal. Only this time, the thousands of refugees happen to be Muslims who are fleeing Kosovo, to escape "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbs.

One month ago, on April 29, the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, gave a speech before the Canadian Houses of Parliament.

In this speech he said that both Canada and Czechoslovakia, as members of NATO, are fighting against Yugoslavia because, President Havel said, "No decent person can stand by and watch the systematic state-directed murder of other people."

He said the state government of Yugoslavia will have to learn, "It is simply not permissible to murder people, to drive them from their homes, to torture them, and confiscate their property."

He went on to say that human rights are above the rights of any state, because "States are human creations; human beings are the creation of God."

Look at the names on the crosses in front of us here. Not a single man went in to battle to torture or to rape. In each and every battle, our men and women were there to protect other people.

None of them were asked about the skin color or the religion of the people they were protecting. When one of the gallant defenders of Bataan, Waverly's own Bernard Fitzpatrick, went on the death march, he knew he was there to protect Filipino people from the swords of the Japanese.

Memorial Day in Waverly honors this brave history. All of you here today can be proud of Waverly, and particularly proud of the people who have kept the Memorial Day tradition alive over all these year; people like Don Smith, setting up the public address system, or Harold Reardon, firing the cannons.

You can be proud of every one of the Charles Claessens Post, and because without their selfless work, there wouldn't be a Memorial Day ceremony. Without commanders like Dave Remer and Charlie Borrell; without auxiliary members like Gerry Smith, Norma Ogle, Yvonne Gagnon and others; there would be no ceremony.

Without people like Catherine Campion selling poppies, there would be no money, and without money, there would be no flags, no crosses and no Memorial Day. And without a Memorial Day celebration, that part of everyone's heart, in which memories are stored, dies just a little.

Here today, when we see the familiar names, we each have our own memories. Each of you must feel as I do; our hearts grow a bit warmer when our families are mentioned.

When I heard Dan Graham call out the names of my brothers, Paul O'Leary and Myles O'Leary, I puffed up a bit, said a silent "Thanks, Dan, for remembering us," and whispered, "Present."

And after everything is over, I can stand in the park, look out at the trees, the buildings and the streets of Waverly, and think of the people I've known.

I know each of you can do the same as I ­ you can name all of your classmates. For me, it was Joe Kugler, Bob Gagnon, Rita Rogers (now Sister John Ellen), Gerry Graham, Betty Burke, Lillian Copeland, Maggie Gromotka and the Jolicouer twins, Leanore and Eleanore.

True, many of us are gone, and the rest of us are growing older, but all are "present" here today, proud to be here, proud to be part of the Memorial Day ceremonies in Waverly.


In Flanders fields, the poppies blow,

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky,

The larks, still bravely singing, fly,

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die,

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Poem by John McRae, which inspired Poppy Day.

Flanders Field is, today, the American cemetery, near Waregem, Belgium. It is a graceful six-acre site, with masses of graceful trees and shrubbery to shield it from the passing traffic. In this peaceful location, rest 368 Americans who gave their lives in liberating Belgium in World War One.

In the movie "Saving Private Ryan," Private Ryan is in the huge American cemetery fifty years later at Normandy, where so many of his friends, who died in combat, were buried. He looked at the grave markers and started to cry.

Sobbing, he asks his wife, "Was I a good man? Was I?" And she says, "Yes, you were, Jimmy. Yes you were."

His dying captain (Tom Hanks) had told him, "Make it worth it. Be a good man. Make this worth it."

And he, in the movie, and all of our Waverly guys, did just that.

In Washington, D.C. last summer, Jeanne and I went to the Vietnam Memorial and walked up and down in front of the wall. I was able to ask for, and find, the names of my friends who died in Vietnam.

I had just come from the Holocaust Museum. I had not known anyone who died in the Holocaust, but I knew, and loved, twenty Minnesota boys.

Some day when you are in Duluth, take a walk along the sidewalk downtown overlooking Lake Superior, and stop when you come to the Vietnam monument. There is a large glassless picture window, looking out over Lake Superior, and behind you, there are the names of the boys from Duluth and surrounding towns who were killed in Vietnam.

Sit there a while, look out at the lake, and think of the boys who once saw the same thing you are looking at, and thank them in your heart. The boys from "Up North."

"I want to be there at my small-town Memorial Day service this year to honor these veterans for the trauma, physical and emotional, that they all endured, wherever they were, whenever it was. What else can be said of the fire test of war? A human ordeal far beyond anything most of us have known.

To those of my small town, and of all the others, to those who didn't come home, and those who did, we owe this bucolic town, this blessed land, and our efforts to make it worthy of their sacrifices."

Susanne Washburn, Commonweal magazine, May 18, 2001.

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