TOLONO — The village has found a more visible way to honor its military veterans.
Until recently, the only memorial was a largely unnoticed wall erected in 1964 at the southeast corner of West Side Park. But thanks in part to the efforts of Ava Tomson, mother of the late Spc. Lucas Starcevich, it has been expanded to include concrete benches, smaller monuments to each branch of service and commemorative granite bricks engraved with the names of veterans.
Tolono Veterans Inc., a group formed by members of now-disbanded Tolono VFW Post 1237, organized the construction and sold bricks to raise money for the memorial.
On a cool and windy morning, town officials, Cub Scouts, VFW members, Patriot Guard Riders and proud citizens turned out to rededicate the memorial and thank those who made it possible. Champaign VFW Post 5520 raised the flag and performed a 21-gun salute followed by the Unity High School marching band's playing of the national anthem.
"We gather today to rededicate that which you have previously blessed," Army National Guard Chaplain Mike Wakeland said in his invocation. "Greater love hath no mortal than one who gives his life for his friends."
"Let this memorial be a reminder of the sacrifice of those who have served," Mayor Kent Plackett said in his welcome.
Plackett then surprised Tolono Veterans member Ray Millsap by proclaiming Ray Millsap Day in Tolono, in recognition of Millsap's efforts in organizing and overseeing the memorial's completion.
Before the crowd adjourned to the Tolono Masonic Lodge for a reception, Wakeland ended the ceremony by asking everyone to remember "families that will have an empty chair this holiday season."
"Grant us your peace as we remember the pledge we have made: 'We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."
While the crowd stood silent, the marching band played "America the Beautiful."
"I think it turned out wonderfully," Millsap said after the ceremony. "A lot of people showed up even with the weather being what it is."
Millsap said that he spent many hours working toward the memorial's completion but added that the community's support "makes it well worth it."
"I got a lot of good help," he said.
Tolono Veterans member Bill Kirby was mayor when the memorial was originally dedicated on Oct. 3, 1965.
"It's really almost an event in its own," Kirby said of Saturday's rededication. "So much has been added to it."
Kirby, himself a World War II Air Force veteran, proudly pointed out the brick for his oldest son, who was a medic officer in Vietnam. He called the commemorative bricks "a lifetime award for what they did for freedom for the country."
"That's the reason there's so much interest in people seeing names on the bricks — that may be the only recognition they get that they did their job and did it well," Kirby said.
Patriot Guard Rider Jon Beck of Tuscola said it's the motorcycle club's mission to support those who risk their lives for the nation's freedom. He added that the group was invited by Tomson, who is a mother of a slain service member, something Beck said is "very high on our list of priorities."
"It makes me think about all the guys that left with me and never came back," said Beck, a Navy veteran. "It's the least we could do, to let them know we're still proud of what they did."