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Friday, July 11, 2014

Kansans honor, remember this Memorial Day weekend

By Beccy Tanner
The Wichita Eagle

This Memorial Day weekend, throughout Kansas, there will be flyovers and flags.

Graves will be decorated.

And, for a moment, people will give pause to remember the veterans who sacrificed their lives.

In cities like Wichita and smaller towns like Lincoln and Larned, residents were busy rededicating memorials, unveiling new ones or planning future monuments all with the same purpose in mind: to remember those who served and those who died.

It happens about every 50 years, said Jay Price, director of the public history program at Wichita State University: Old memorials are refurbished, new ones are built. It is all about building a public memory.

“As people get older, they want to have things permanently in place,” said Tom Schmidt, past state commander of the Sons of the Union Veterans.

In Wichita on Saturday, the Sons of the Union Veterans were scheduled to help re-dedicate the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Pavilion in Maple Grove Cemetery, near Ninth and Hillside. The memorial is rare in that it honors both white and African-American Union veterans.

In Lincoln, residents planned to dedicate a new tombstone to Civil War veteran Edward Simmons, who died in 1883.

In Larned, residents there continue to work on fundraising for building the Pawnee County Veterans Memorial, recognizing veterans of all wars.

“For some of them, it is too late,” said Terry Harris, part of the project in Larned. “We need to thank these guys.”

Lincoln

For Tracee Hamilton, her passion for history is what drew her to uncovering Edward Simmons’ gravesite.

Hamilton, a sports columnist for the Washington Post, grew up in Lincoln – just northwest of Salina — and has fond memories of a childhood spent going to area cemeteries with her grandmother.

For several years, she has researched every edition of every paper in Lincoln County. She has gathered more than 13,000 obituaries. One of them was Edward Simmons. And that led her to the tragic story of the Simmons family.

Edward’s son, Joshua, drowned in the Saline River in July 1878. He had been riding a horse and leading another when he lost his footing in the river and became entangled. He left a wife and five children.

Two months later, there was a diphtheria outbreak and two of Joshua’s children and Edward’s wife, Rebecca, died.

Edward Simmons died on Jan. 21, 1883. During the Civil War, at age 58, he was mustered in to the 37th Volunteer Infantry, known as the Graybeard Regiment. While serving, he lost his left leg when gangrene set in following an infection. He was discharged in 1865.

In 1876, the Simmons family homesteaded in Lincoln County. After more than a century, there was no family left in the area to recognize his grave.

“This was a man who lost a leg in the service of his country,” Hamilton said. “He then came out to Kansas as a pioneer. The idea that he was in an unmarked grave was unacceptable.”

That was expected to change Saturday when Simmons was set to receive a proper burial ceremony. Civil War re-enactors, historians and Freedom Riders were expected to attend a Grand Army of the Republic ceremony near Lincoln to honor Simmons and place wreaths at a new tombstone now decorating his grave.

Pawnee County

Call it patriotism. Call it “doing the right thing.” It all comes down to honor and respect.

“I grew up in the Army,” said Terry Harris of Larned.

“I watched my dad go off to Vietnam. And, luckily, I watched him come back again. He served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I never remember him being thanked.”

That’s one reason, Harris said, he wanted to be part of the project to build a memorial for all Pawnee County veterans.

Harris, 56, said he remembers going to school in the 1970s when it wasn’t hip to be patriotic. The feeling of the country is different now, Harris said. It is different even from a decade ago, shortly after 9/11.

The $170,000 Pawnee County memorial is incorporating a piece of steel from the World Trade Center’s south tower. The memorial will also be decorated with a 4-foot-tall bronze eagle.

“This is something that should have been done years ago,” he said. “We’re hoping it is not too late. It is just now, people’s hearts are in a different place.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com

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