LOCK HAVEN - Five Hundred and twelve members of the U.S. Armed Forces ... and five hundred and twelve stories of service to the nation, some of them being told for the first time.
The new banners, a moving tribute to those from Clinton County who have or are serving our country in a branch of the military, were unveiled Saturday morning.
Even as family members accepted the retired banners that have served as a vivid memorial on the streets of Lock Haven for more than a year, new banners honoring a new round of veterans and servicemen and women were unveiled.
JIM RUNKLE/THE EXPRESS
Ida May Harris, left, daughter of Robert Lee Condon, and Stella Barnard, Condon’s niece, unveil Condon’s Hometown Hero banner.
The Hometown Hero Banner Program, a partnership between Downtown Lock Haven Inc. and the Clinton County Veterans Affairs Office, set out to create banners honoring members of the military.
Along the way, the program has created a unique opportunity to record history.
Each individual banner is unique and honors a specific soldier including their picture, branch of service, era of service and hometown in Clinton County. Many of those banners are featured in "The Lives Behind the Banners" weekly articles appearing in The Express, providing the details of individual and family military service.
The reaction by family members and honorees, at both Saturday's ceremony as the old banners were retired and afterward, when the new banners were revealed, was uniformly positive.
Gary Rupert of Howard, an Air Force veteran, is on of the new banners.
"I think this is the greatest thing in the world," he said. "I never thought I'd ever get this type of recognition. Now, after 43 years, it finally came and I have butterflies in my stomach."
The Vietnam veteran said he served as a specialist, loading bombs onto B-52s.
Robert Watkins of Lock Haven is a Veterans of Foreign Wars member, an Army veteran and chaplain for the local organization. He served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967.
"I served in the 62nd Engineer Battalion, building bridges," he said. He was at the ceremony to accept a retiring banner.
"I like this. I think this is a very good program. I'm going to give my banner to my daughter, Bobbie Probst."
"I think this is very important to this town," said Gary Probst of Lock Haven, who was unveiling a new banner honoring his stepfather, Cecil Stull, who served in the U.S. Navy in World War II. "This town has a lot of heroes."
"Mine is going up," said Em Rinker, who works for The Express and served two tours during the Vietnam War in the U.S. Navy. He said he was a shipfitter on the USS Arlen Dixon, a destroyer, and followed that with a tour on the USS Catamont, a transport ship that dropped off troops at Danang.
"I think it's great ... Good for all the veterans. More towns should be doing this," he said.
Denise Aungst was unveiling a banner honoring her father, Ralph Aungst, who served in the U.S. Army military police in Korea. He passed away on Dec. 14, 2006.
"I think this is really neat," she said. "It's quite an honor."
"It's very important to remember our veterans," her boyfriend, Dennie Davidson, said. "They are the reason we have what we have."
Donna Weaver of Mill Hall was looking forward to seeing the new banner featuring her father, Milford Leonard Gaines. Gaines served in the U.S. Army in World War II.
"I love this," she said. "I think it's very nice that they are doing this." Another daughter, Karen, simply said, "It makes me proud."
Jennifer Workman of Lock Haven was attending the service with her son, Seth, and they were there to honor John Toot of Mill Hall, a Lock Haven High School graduate and retired Air Force member who served for several years on Air Force One, when Ronald Reagan was president.
Along with them were Toot's wife, Sue, daughter, Teresa Boudwin, and her son, Ethan.
"It's well deserved," Jennifer said.
The banner was coming down for John F. Seltzer, who served in World War II from 1942 to 1945 with the Fifth Army in Italy. His wife, Judy, also a veteran, described the day's events as "wonderful."
Gladys Peters and her son, Steven, gathered under the light standard to uncover the image of her husband, Leroy W. "Pete" Peter, who served in the Navy in World War II.
"I think it's wonderful," she said. "It's a very emotional time. I couldn't be at the river ceremony because of my health, but I wanted to be here when they showed the banner for the first time."
The banner for Darel Saiers, U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, also drew a crowd, including Charles Saiers, Gale Fuller and Dee Saiers. Charles and Gale are son and daughter, and Dee, a daughter-in-law, said "It's a very good picture."
Beneath the banner showing William Holland Jr. was a whole clan, including Joel Holland, great-grandson Keatin Holland, William Holland III, the banner honoree himself, his wife, Ann, and great-granddaughter-in-law, Glendaly Holland.
"It's utterly fantastic," the honoree said. "That crowd was unbelievable and I can't believe they ever anticipated all those people. We have a debt of gratitude to the people who put this together."
At the banner of Robert Lee Condon, a U.S. Army World War II veteran, were Ida May Harris, Condon's daughter, and Stella Barnard, his niece.
"I think this is a great honor," Harris said. "It's an honor they are sending out to all the veterans and the fellas who are serving overseas."
In many cases, these living memorials to those soldiers from Clinton County who served our country have given families an opportunity to connect to their family history - an opportunity that may never have existed before the program began.
Started in October 2007 as a six-month effort, the Hometown Hero program has now become an amazingly successful, multi-year saga that promises many future connections with history and family.
The bonds that have been created are immeasurable ... and in many cases, indescribable.
Asking family members to describe their feelings about the program and the banners elicits responses that are, for the most part, characteristically brief. But at kitchen tables, living rooms and porches across Clinton County, questions have been asked and many have been answered.
In many cases, servicemen and women who return from combat overseas find themselves unwilling or unable to talk about their experiences and, for the most part these stories of courage and service would be lost.
No more. The dialogue has begun.
Some family members said it was the first time they every heard the story of their relative's time in the military, and the tribute has opened up a lot of doors to history in the community.
That history was apparent as family members - many of them representing generations - unveiled the banners honoring former and present members of the Armed Forces.
Saturday's Hometown Hero ceremony gave veterans an opportunity to tell their stories. For those who have been lost to us, the surviving family members carry on the tradition, providing the younger generations with many lessons about service, courage, commitment and honor.
Anybody attending the ceremony at J. Doyle Corman Amphitheatre or walking the streets of Lock Haven on Saturday was also provided with a history, of sorts, in how families deal with unexpected honors.
Many of the people who uncovered the banners now lining so many of the city's streets beamed with pride and humility.
It's not the full story, by any means, and we may never hear all the details of valor, but it's a starting point - Call it a first page that opens to a series of formerly unknown tales of sacrifice and contribution.