History of veterans day

A Day to Honor Veterans

By Roberta Birk Mlynar

Without Emporia, Kansas, there would be no Veterans Day; it’s as simple as that.

The holiday – 50 years old in Emporia and 49 years old nationally this year – began through the efforts of an Emporia shoe repairman, Alvin J. (Al) King.

King and his wife Gertrude had helped bring up his nephew, John E. Cooper, who was serving as part of the Third U.S. Army in Germany when he was killed in action on Dec. 20, 1944. Pfc. Cooper, an ammunition handler with Company B, died during an enemy counterattack in a forest outside Habkirchen, Germany, according to a letter to the family from Army Chaplain Charles H. Washburn.

“John was struck and instantly killed by shrapnel from an exploding enemy artillery shell,” Washburn wrote in a letter dated April 11, 1945. “He is buried in the United States Military Cemetery at Limey, France. One of our Protestant chaplains gave (John) a Christian burial and read appropriate Scriptures and prayers.”

Grief over the young man’s death apparently started King looking for a way to honor not only his nephew, but all veterans who fight during wars and serve during peace to keep America free.

King thus began his campaign to change an existing national holiday – Armistice Day – to Veterans Day. He gained the cooperation of the community’s American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AmVets and War Dads units, plus support from an essential ally, U.S. Rep. Ed Rees of Emporia.

Rees agreed to take King’s idea to Washington, D.C., where it passed the House and Senate. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill establishing Veterans Day as a national holiday. The nation held its first Veterans Day on Nov. 11, 1954.

Emporia, however, had organized its first celebration, called “All Veterans Day,” the previous year.

Ninety percent of Emporia storeowners had decided to close their businesses for the day, and the Emporia Board of Education followed suit. As a result, most Emporians were free to take part in or watch many of the events.

The Emporia Gazette and Emporia Times newspapers reported a full slate of activities that began with a parade at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 11, 1953. At 11 a.m., civil-defense sirens, church bells and power-plant whistles marked the formal beginning of the event; the timing acknowledged the signing of the armistice that ended World War I at 11 a.m. of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.

The American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps stood at Sixth Avenue and Commercial Street to play “Taps” after the whistles and bells, and the Kansas City AmVets Drum and Bugle Corps stood nearby to sound the echo.

Hot dogs, beans and coffee were served free in the basement of the Civic Auditorium. A wheelchair basketball game followed, featuring the Rolling Pioneers of Kansas City against a town team that included names familiar still to long-time Emporians – Malcom Smith of the Lowther Junior High School faculty, Carl Haney, Jerry Waugh and Gene Ridenour of the Emporia High School staff; Leslie Hayes of The Emporia Gazette; Keith Caywood of Kansas State Teachers College faculty; and Tom McGahey of Olpe High School.

The drive-in theater showed a free movie and a free dance closed the day’s events.

Then-Kansas Governor Edward F. Arn watched the parade from the reviewing stand and, according to a newspaper account, “exclaimed, ‘This is a wonderful thing. It should be done in every city of the nation.’ ”

By the next year, it was.

Veterans Day Pioneers

General Chairman – Alvin J. King.

General Committee – Lee Wheeler, V.F.W. Post 1980; James J. Bradfield, Ball McColm Post 5, American Legion; Floyd E. Davis, AmVets, Emporia Post #12; Everett Banister, American War Dads, Chapter #87.

Program Committee – Ernest Cipra, Deloy Heath, John C. Patton.

Finance Committee – Thomas Sutton, Ralph Phillips, Clyde House, Arthur L. Rigdon, John A. Gilliland.

Treasurer – Deloy Heath.

Publicity Committee – Frank Lill and Milo Sutton.

Food Committee – LeRoy D. Brickley, Austin Andrews, and Carl Dabbs.

Secretary – Mrs. Gertrude King.

Contact with Military and Government Officials – Richard Mankin, R.W. Reigle Sr., and R.W. Reigle Jr.

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