SMETHPORT — Blue skies and overall pleasant weather greeted the large crowds along West Main Street to see the annual Memorial Day parade Monday and the program at the McKean County Courthouse.
In his prepared remarks, McKean County President Judge John Pavlock said, “It is my job here today; it is my goal to convey the true meaning of this day — these ceremonies — to honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice — their lives — for us. I know words can never capture the depth of their and their families’ sacrifices.”
Pavlock then referred to this being the American Legion’s 100th anniversary. “The organization started in 1919 in France following World War I and incorporated by Congress later that year. The American Legion is a patriotic veterans’ organization devoted to mutual helpfulness, and our local post, the Bucktail Post #138, and its members provide a lot of mutual helpfulness in our community.”
While preparing his remarks for this ceremony, Pavlock said he learned that in 1924 the Bucktail Post purchased the Lyceum Theatre on Main Street, which was built to replace the Opera House that had burned in a fire in 1898. “So, the Bucktail Branch goes back to at least 1924. Happy anniversary American Legion and thank you and the Veterans of Foreign Wars for what you do for our community and our veterans.”
Pavlock recalled the Memorial Day program in 2016 when Pastor Frank Eppley, a decorated Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient from his service in Vietnam, was the guest speaker. Just as Eppley was concluding his remarks, a giant Air Force C130 turboprop transport plane flew over the courthouse at an estimated altitude of 1,200 feet.
At the time Pavlock was standing next to Sean Purpura and his family, friends from Harbor Creek, at what could have been their first time at Smethport’s Memorial Day exercises. “Even though Shawn is a big dude, hunter and fisherman, I saw tears running down his cheek,” said Pavlock. “When the ceremony was over, Shawn told me ‘I didn’t think the ceremony would be anything like that. They ripped my heart out and then when the C130 flew over, I didn’t know if I could take much more.”
According to Pavlock Shawn hit on something about this area. “We take Memorial Day and the need to honor those who have fallen very seriously. Memorial Day is a national holiday with events all over the country to honor the fallen. But, there is something here in McKean County that grabs right at our hearts, that kicks the commitment and emotion of this day up a few notches. What is that?” he asked.
Then, answering his own question, Pavlock asked the audience to look down at where they were standing. “No matter whether you’re standing on concrete, pavement, roadway or grass, it is hallowed ground.”
For those standing on Main Street that was blocked to traffic for the ceremony, Pavlock said they are standing on the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, named in honor of the GAR, a fraternal organization formed shortly after the Civil War with many local posts, one of which was in Smethport. The GAR lobbied for establishing a Remembrance Day to honor the fallen of the Civil War. “Later,” Pavlock said, “Remembrance Day became Memorial Day to honor the fallen in all conflicts.”
Next, Pavlock turned his attention to those in the audience standing on the courthouse lawn, saying “The lawn, the soil you’re standing on was a very important place, a place where Colonel Thomas Kane recruited volunteers to defend the Union in 1861. One of the volunteers cut the tail off a whitetail buck hanging at a butcher shop across the street, a gesture that other recruits copied and became the symbol of the famous ‘Bucktails.’”
While this part of the story is nice, Pavlock noted, the rest of the story about the Bucktails, although filled with honor and courage, was not so happy. Pavlock said, “The war that was to last a few months went on for years, and many of the soldiers who marched from this spot with a tail or piece of whitetail hide on their caps never came back. The last their feet touched the soil under your feet today, the soil of McKean County, was in 1861 when they left here to march south.”
A special float was entered in this year’s parade. Riding on the float, which was sponsored by the McKean County American Legion Riders, were Pastor Frank Eppley, a decorated Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient from the Vietnam War, along with Purple Heart Princess Ragyn Walker, and Purple Heart Prince Cameron Pysher, Eppley’s grandson.
Eppley introduced the prince and princess and Miss Poppy, Madison Swanson, from the podium.
Bucktail Post Commander Pat Miesowitz, president of the day, lowered the American flag and then raised it to half-staff in tribute to fallen servicemen and women, including the late County Commissioner AL Pingie, a Marine and former Bradford City fireman.
Director Emily Housler led the Smethport Area High School Band in several selections, including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “American Spirit,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
During the “Honor the Dead” rite, band members Ethan Nannen and Dakota Galloway played “Taps” and the echo, respectively.
Veterans Don Gifford and Bill Wilber placed wreaths at the two veterans’ memorial markers on the courthouse lawn.
Bob Funk was officer of the day, and “Bud” Abbey commanded the color guard.
Bucktail Post Assistant Chaplain Seth Digel offered the invocation and benediction.
In his closing remarks, Miesowitz thanked the Sons of the American Legion and the veterans who participated in the parade and program and recognized World War II veteran Clint Williams.of Smethport.
The Smethport police and fire departments and fire police were also thanked.