November is a daunting month.
It embodies cold and dismal days that open the door to winter, but at the same time celebrates military veterans and the joy of giving thanks that warms the heart.
A local project that will be unveiled this month at the Fond du La c County James Megellas Veterans Memorial Building on Fond du Lac Avenue offers the community the best of both worlds — giving thanks for the men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation.
Nov. 11, now known to Americans as Veterans Day, once was revered as Armistice Day, in memory of the day when bloody World War I, the misnamed “war to end all wars,” mercifully ended.
Jim Megellas, the local soldier, World War II hero and Medal of Honor nominee for whom the Veterans Memorial Building is named, remembers when he and fellow students at old Washington School in his distinctive Greek neighborhood of Doty and Macy Streets faced east at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to honor the memory of those who had died in World War I and in prior wars.
Megellas, now 97, recalls how all of the sirens in the city sounded at the prescribed hour on Nov. 11 and how the people of Fond du Lac paid special tribute to its veterans.
He also remembers Memorial Day parades in which veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War marched on Main Street.
“I remember the impact it had on me growing up — the military history of Fond du Lac,” Megellas said in a local newspaper interview several years ago.
He became a key cog in that military history when he answered the call to begin his commission as a first lieutenant in World War II, fresh out of Ripon College, and distinguished himself in battle in Italy, the Netherlands and in particular in Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge.
Now, a new element in local military history is about to be unveiled for permanent display at the American Legion Clubhouse within the Veterans Memorial Building at 500 Fond du Lac Ave.
A remembrance wall featuring a colorful patriotic mural and the names of those from Fond du Lac County who died in combat and other aspects of military service will be prominently displayed on plaques in time for Veterans Day.A brief unveiling ceremony is scheduled at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9, at the American Legion Clubhouse. The public is invited.
Gold Star mother Sharon Priepke will be a special guest at the ceremony. She is the mother of Marc Nieto of Fond du Lac, who was one of 17 U.S. sailors killed aboard the USS Cole in a terrorist attack in Yemen in October of 2000.
It will be only the second location in the county where the names of those killed in military service will be on permanent display.
The other location is the west wall of the first floor main corridor of the Fond du Lac City County Government Center, where impressive metal-lettered plaques titled Honor Roll and In Memoriam catch the eyes of passers-by.
Project has evolved
The memorial on the wall of the America Legion is the brainchild of Donna Wilhelms, longtime member and vice president of the American Legion Auxiliary.
The concept of a remembrance project has evolved over a long period of time, Wilhelms said, noting many visits over the years to the Veterans Home at King and decades of honoring military veterans and their families in a variety of ways.
“I thought about ways to bring about a special place of recognition,” she said. “Of all places, this is the place where they — our veterans, our war dead — deserve to be recognized and honored,” she said, speaking of the Veterans Memorial Building and the American Legion Clubhouse.
Honored to help
When Dawn Lakin and Julie Balson learned of the project and realized the scope of its importance, they volunteered their expertise and resources.
In essence, they asked Wilhelms what they could do to enhance the remembrance project.
Lakin, owner of Wall Designs by Dawn Lakin with more than 17 years of experience at her disposal, is the leader of the artistic elements of the project.
Her talents are on display at homes and businesses throughout the area, including St. Agnes Gift Shop, the Ramada Plaza and Schmitty’s Oar House.
“Planning what to do, what to include, is the difficult part,” Lakin said.
“It takes some time and thought,” she said the day before she embarked on a freehand sketch on a sheet of paper that would eventually translate to the large wall surface.
Eagle, flags, names
She envisioned a dominant POW/MIA American eagle with wings unfolding similar to unfurled American flags, and beneath the wings stretching out across the wall, seven framed plaques featuring the local names of those killed in military service.
The seven plaques represent war dead from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, the USS Cole and the ongoing War on Terror.
The printing of names was handled by Minuteman Press of North Fond du Lac.“This is the first mural honoring veterans that I’ve ever done,” Lakin noted. “As far as I know it is the only one locally that includes names and a mural.”
The project has particular significance for Lakin. Her father, Paul Deanovich of Fond du Lac, is a veteran of Vietnam, and her two grandfathers were veterans of World War II.
She wants to honor them as well.
“I’m really hoping my Dad will be there for the unveiling,” Lakin said. “My Dad is so proud of his service in the Marine Corps.”
And she’s proud to be a part of the mural project. Like others who are involved, she speaks of the value of “giving something back” for the privilege of being a citizen.
“I wanted to donate my time, artwork and creativity,” she said. “I give tremendous credit to Donna Wilhelms for this project and letting me a part of it.”
Julie Balson, owner of Gallery & Frame Shop at the corner of Main and First Streets, reinforces Lakin’s comments.
“When Donna and I talked, I wanted to do something … to be a part of it in some way,” Balson said.
She and her business will handle the time and materials for framing of plaques featuring the names of veterans as a donation.
“I’m just honored to be part of this,” Balson said. “The way I look at it is simple. If not for them — our veterans, all of them, and especially those who gave their lives — I wouldn’t have a business. I wouldn’t have the life we have. Because of them we have freedom and a free country.”
Balson noted that it’s “too easy” to take freedom for granted.
Those who have lost family members and friends in combat never take it for granted.
That’s just one of many compelling reasons for placing the names of local heroes on permanent display for all to see and know regardless of how much time goes by.
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.