Veterans had a lot of things to do while they were being celebrated Saturday at Stuhr Museum.
Speakers expounded on a range of topics. Music was provided by the Cathedral Brass and the Offutt Brass.
The schedule also included a motorcycle show and shine, a hospitality canteen and a watermelon-eating contest, the latter billed as “The Battle of the Rinds.”
So it wasn’t all about the picture. But 85 veterans made sure they were present at 4 p.m., when a group photo was taken on the south side of the Stuhr Building.
In some ways, the “Welcome Home” party was meant to duplicate a giant celebration held in Grand Island on July 24, 1919. That was why Eddie the comfort dog was positioned in front of the veterans on Saturday. The 1919 group also had a dog in front.
Brad Mellema took the photo from an elevated position, using a boom lift provided by Mike Lilienthal. Stuhr maintenance director Tom Oshlo operated the lift while Mellema captured the image. Lilienthal, who owns MRL Crane, is a former Marine himself, so he got in the picture.
Mellema and other organizers also carefully captured the name of each veteran, so they can write one heck of a caption.
One of the participants pointed out that the temperature wasn’t too bad when the picture was taken.
The Welcome Home event was originally envisioned as a centennial celebration of the 1919 homecoming. In his speech Saturday, Stuhr Executive Director Joe Black said that event was held “basically on the ground that you’re on right now.” That location, known as Schimmer’s Lake, is today known as Hall County Park.
Co-chairs Michelle Setlik and Kari Stofer, in consultation with Stuhr, decided to expand the idea to honor all veterans and current service members. Special attention would go to veterans who didn’t get much of a welcome when they returned home.
At 5:30 p.m., attendees heard from several speakers, including Mayor Roger Steele; Brigadier General Kevin Lyons, assistant adjutant general of the Nebraska Army National Guard, and Hall County Supervisor Pam Lancaster. The latter also sang the national anthem earlier in the day.
Steele said it’s our job as Americans to uphold the idea that soldiers are citizens are treated with dignity and that “morality prevails, even in war.” Attendees gathered Saturday to celebrate the dignity of those who have served, and to thank them, Steele said.
Black said it had been a wonderful day, and that the veterans had a chance to learn about history on their visit to the museum.
“This has been an amazing event. This is really a community collaboration,” Setlik said in an interview. “We had a lot of different organizations and people that came together to make this possible.”
The planning committee included the Hall County Historical Society, the Hall County and Central Community College veterans service offices, a Christian motorcycle group, Stuhr employees, the Stuhr board and Stuhr Foundation board.
Initial talk about the Welcome Home event began about a year and a half ago. More people became involved in the last six to nine months.
Five organizations hosted Saturday’s canteen, which was on the west side of the Stuhr Building on the patio. Shifts were handled by the Hall County Historical Society, the Prairie Pioneer Genealogical Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Red Cross and the Lions Club.
Refreshments and snacks were provided at the canteen, which gave attendees a chance to relax and visit.
Like the original celebration, Saturday’s party featured music, speeches and competitions, Setlik said. The competition came in the form of the watermelon battle. Held at Railroad Town, it matched service branches against each other.
“We had amazing speakers all day long,” Setlik said. They included Dave Marsh of Humanities Nebraska, who created a program just for the occasion, called “Music of the World Wars.”
Jean Lukesh talked about Nebraska native Ben Kuroki, who was a World War II pilot.
Setlik said the 1919 celebration drew 7,000 people.
“We had a really big crowd here today. We didn’t have 7,000, but unlike then, there’s a lot more stuff going on. So I’m really pleased with the crowd that came out today. And I think there’s a lot of people who got to come out and experience Stuhr Museum for the first time, or maybe the first time in a long time, that haven’t been here. So we got some different people here.”
It’s certainly true that things have changed in 100 years. In 1919, there wasn’t an automatic Husqvarna lawnmower patrolling the grounds, as there was Saturday at Stuhr Museum.
In the interest of accuracy, there were only about 55 people gathered when the speakers started talking at 5:30 p.m. But people were returning to the grounds, or arriving, to hear the Offutt Brass conclude the day with a 6 p.m. concert.
An interesting thing about Saturday’s celebration is that no one’s around who remembers the first one.
The question is: Is it too early to start planning for the next one?