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Ninety years ago this fall, Nebraska’s faculty, students, alumni and friends of the University of Nebraska launched a drive to raise $430,000 to construct a football stadium. When that quota became oversubscribed, Lincoln’s most famous landmark was built and then named Memorial Stadium to honor all Nebraskans who served in the Civil and Spanish-American Wars, as well as the 751 Nebraskans who died in World War I. Memorial Stadium also honors the 3,839 Nebraskans who died in World War II, the 225 who died in the Korean War and the 422 who died in the Vietnam War. Memorial Stadium was completed in a matter of months and was officially dedicated on Oct. 20, 1923, when Nebraska and Kansas played to a scoreless tie.
Yesterday, of course, was Memorial Day, and for a lot of people, it was just another holiday – a day off of work and a chance to get together with friends or family members for a barbecue. I enjoyed the free day as much as anyone, but kept thinking about Nebraska’s fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and how they’re now part of those we will honor in this historic 2012 season when we celebrate 50 years of consecutive football sellouts at Memorial Stadium. The vast majority of us are pretty well removed from World War II when we knew people who served and died. We’re even removed from the Vietnam War when we had friends and classmates fighting for our country. Within minutes of wondering how many Nebraska men and women have sacrificed their lives since the invasion of Iraq almost a decade ago, I received an email from Jerry Wood, a fellow Alliance native who now lives in Valrico, Fla. A strong believer in states’ rights and citizens’ rights, Wood delivered the right email at the right time. I looked at the Nebraska soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan and could only imagine what their families were thinking as they remembered their loved ones on this special day. I could close my eyes and see my late mom selling poppies on Memorial Day for the VFW. She would tell those who were buying the poppies that we should never forget those who died serving our nation during war. My late dad was lucky. As a corporal in the Army, he did not get seriously hurt, even though he helped build bridges in World War II. On one occasion, he even pulled a Nazi flag off a French schoolhouse. That flag is full of signatures from soldiers he fought with. I attended seven WWII reunions with my dad, and that flag brought back fond memories, especially since so many soldiers’ names in their company had been lost over time. That alone helped me understand why my mom worried that our country would forget the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day and sadly, that has happened in many places.
Hopefully, Nebraska is a notable exception, and when you see our state’s contributors to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we hope we will always remember our fallen soldiers. Omaha has ties to 16 fallen Nebraska soldiers this past decade. Lincoln has nine, Bellevue four and Papillion and LaVista a combined three. Grand Island, Scottsbluff and Valentine have two ties each to fallen soldiers since 2003. According to my calculations, 44 recent fallen Nebraskans were in the Army, 11 in the Marines, 11 in the Nebraska National Guard and 10 in the Navy. Other Nebraska cities, towns and villages who are represented on this list compiled by Nebraska’s Department of Veteran Affairs are: Albion, Atkinson, Auburn, Beatrice, Cairo, Clarks, Cozad, Falls City, Fremont, Greenwood, Gretna, Harrisburg, Hastings, Hemingford, Hay Springs, Holstein, Kearney, McCook, Minden, Norfolk, North Platte, Ogallala, Plattsmouth, Plymouth, Ponca, Ralston, Shelton, Sidney, South Sioux City, Spalding, Sutton, Verdon, Wakefield, Wayne and York.
As an Alliance native, it’s touching to know that ground was broken four years ago on a Nebraska Veterans Cemetery, located three miles southeast of my hometown. The cemetery is now open from dawn to dusk seven days a week. It’s Nebraska’s first State Veterans Cemetery and was dedicated and presented to the public on Aug. 13, 2010. The first interment was Jan. 21, 2011. Seven years before I was born, the US Army selected more than 31,000 acres of land in that same basic area to build an airfield in Alliance. A few months later, four 9,000-foot runways were completed. The primary mission was to train airborne troops and equip them for battle. By the time I was born, most of the 775 buildings that housed nearly 12,500 military personnel in Alliance at the peak of the war in 1943 were gone. A whole squadron, carrier groups, glider and parachute infantry and a large team of airborne engineers were deployed to the European Theater. Many who trained in Alliance participated in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
I’m proud of all men and women who have served our country, and I still marvel at how Memorial Stadium’s four corners echo Memorial Day’s real meaning. Former Nebraska professor of philosophy Hartley Burr Alexander wrote the words inscribed into the stadium’s hallowed walls. The Southeast corner says: “In Commemoration of the men of Nebraska who served and fell in the Nation’s Wars.” The Southwest corner says: “Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.” The Northwest corner says:“Courage; Generosity; Fairness; Honor; In these are the true awards of manly sport.” The Northeast corner says:“Their lives they held their country’s trust; They kept its faith; They died its heroes.” Memorial Stadium means a lot of things, but I think the most important is being able to stop and read what those words say and then allow them to speak so they can really soak in. Yes, focusing on those cornerstones helps you understand the true meaning of Memorial Day because they remind all of us what brave men and women did. Someday, when you have the time to walk around the stadium, try to hit for the cycle. Feast on a professor’s wisdom about faith, glory, heroes and war. In the time it takes to read all four corners, you’ll find what I found – precious words can be etched into your mind every bit as permanently as they’ve been carved into the stadium’s walls.
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Voices from Husker Nation
As a veteran, I found your most recent article one of the best, if not the best, that I have read in a long time. Thank you for that. Very respectfully, Philip Wojtalewicz, Sr. Principal Analyst, Colonel, US Army Reserve, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas
I very much enjoyed your Tuesday piece. Characteristically, it had a great theme, and some insightful observations. It had particular resonance with me in light of the fact that my late father was a WWII machine-gunner in the 5th Marines, and my uncle a WWII rifleman in the Army’s 135th Infantry. Dad survived the war and died at the age of 86, in 2009. I was his partner in business for about 30 years, and he often discussed his service with me. (Indeed, he even wrote a book about his experience which was published by the UNL press – “The Long Road of War” by James W. Johnston.) My uncle was killed in action at Monte Cassino, Italy. Thanks for the blog, and thanks for all the good work in the Husker Athletic Department. Kind regards, James P. Johnston, Wauneta, Nebraska
What a great piece on Memorial Stadium and particularly the tribute to Nebraska Heroes as well as our Nation’s Heroes. As a native Nebraskan (Lincoln) now living in Alabama, I continue to be humbled by the Midwestern spirit and values that make me proud. As a season ticket holder to Nebraska football, I see those four corners and read the inscriptions each trip, and though I am not able to make each game, I am always there in spirit. Being a veteran myself, those “4 corners” truly have special meaning. In short, thanks for a great article. I enjoy what you bring to the table each day. Thanks and Go Big Red! Darin Geiger, Huntsville, Alabama
I don't know what to say, how to put it in words, but your article on Memorial Stadium on Memorial Day was outstanding! I saw my first game there in 1966 with my Dad vs. TCU (still have the newspaper clipping of the game from the Sunday paper!) You have highlighted what Husker fans have seen and read inscribed on the stadium and have brought them to a much deserved light. Thanks for a great piece. PS - have moved 7 times since leaving Nebraska, always following Big Red. Mark Radachi, Scottsdale, Arizona
Enjoy all of your pieces, but this one was great. Your piece about the ‘60s, prior to all the TV coverage, was also great. I grew up in Scottsbluff and want to thank you for bringing Nebraska values/tradition to life. Clay Gibson, Bakersfield, California
I've been reading your material for close to 40 years and the Memorial Stadium/Memorial Day article may have been your best. Thanks so much for bringing it all home. The Nebraska State Veterans’ Cemetery at Alliance now has 84 interments, including Vietnam War Vet Mike Garwood, who was associated with KCOW Radio for 32 years and a member of the Alliance High Class of 1967. Thanks for a great article. I'm only sorry it took me until June 1 to get it read. Kevin Horn, Alliance, Nebraska
Your Memorial Day Blog article was very good. There should be more publicity and more should be done to help people remember. Gary McGirr, Topeka, Kansas