For years Jim Washington soldiered on as the chief organizer of the annual Memorial Day commemoration on the Square in downtown Carlisle.
The community leader and former Marine knew the drill involved to get the town ready to honor the sacrifice of those who served and died during war and peace.
“Jim was an unsung hero,” said Neal Delisanti, Cumberland County director of veterans’ affairs. “He just got it done. To his credit, we as a community relied too much on him.”
This Memorial Day the name “Jim Washington” will be among those called out as local residents pause and reflect on the roll call of veterans who have died since May 2016.
Washington died on May 12 following a battle with stage-four kidney cancer. He was 65 and best known for his work as the executive director of Hope Station, a nonprofit organization on West Penn Street that lifts up the community through programs that focus largely on children.
“I met with Jim a couple of times,” said Delisanti, who has taken over the leadership role. “He was really sick, but he did his best to help out with information he had in his memory and his files.”
Washington offered the 2017 organizers advice on the steps to take and guidance on how to contact past participants. The effect has been to spur the joint veterans’ council to spread the burden of planning Memorial Day onto many shoulders, not just a few or one person, Delisanti said.
Planning started late this year, so some groups had to decline the Carlisle invitation because they were already committed to another event. “They asked to be included next year,” Delisanti said. “We got a pretty good representation of the community to participate in the parade.”
In Silver Spring Township, tasks related to its ceremony at Willow Mill Park are delegated starting in late January or early February to the seven members of the veterans’ committee who coordinate the volunteers, said Kurt Minnich, a retired Army master sergeant who served in the first Gulf War and later Iraq.
An early step in the process is to line-up a speaker — usually a current student at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. Planning also focuses on getting local youth involved in this community tribute.
“We work with Cumberland Valley School District to get the Junior ROTC to present the colors and lay the wreath,” Minnich said. Volunteers also recruit student musicians to sing the National Anthem and play taps while the school district itself provides about 100 folding chairs for attendees.
Silver Spring Township staff help prepare the park for the event and, in recent years, students with the Cumberland Perry Area Vocational-Technical School have donated their time to plant grass and mulch the area around the Veterans’ Memorial. “It has been a great partnership with the schools,” Minnich said. “The students are involved in community service. It really helps with the idea of selfless service which is one of the main values we hope to promote.”
The committee sells commemorative bricks in support of the park memorial. Part of the ceremony Monday will be a roll call of the names of veterans honored with newly installed bricks.
Shippensburg has a tradition where the names of veterans who died over the past year are written on slips of paper. After the chaplain reads off each name, the parade marshal puts each paper into an Army helmet that is suspended from three rifles that form a tripod. The slips of paper are then set on fire.
“We have a gentleman who keeps track of them all,” said Stella Mears, secretary of the local joint veterans’ council. She said Shippensburg-area Marine and Navy veterans have their own tradition where names are read and flowers are thrown into the creek from the Branch Bridge in tribute to the fallen.
Planning for Memorial Day in Shippensburg starts in March and includes sending out notices to past participants in the holiday parade to ask them to come back, Mears said. She said another early step is to write letters to the mayor and town council to get approval to have a parade and close streets to parking along the route.
“It’s all volunteer work,” said Mears, adding that another task is to round up enough drivers to transport the chaplain, parade marshal and dignitaries to events planned for Memorial Day.
The Joint Veterans Council of Newville has a committee of about a dozen volunteers each assigned a task, said Pat Reed, chairperson. “Everybody has a different job.” As with other communities, organizers in Newville have to line up parade participants, muster drivers to shuttle VIPs, schedule a speaker and compile a list of deceased veterans using newspaper obituaries as a resource.
Newville Borough Council approves the parade route while borough employees help the volunteers by setting up the viewing stand, tents and chairs for the ceremony. Organizers in Newville also have a system in place where ministers from local churches are put into a rotation and take turns from year to year giving the invocation and benediction, Reed said.