Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 16, 2015
Patriotism, pep rally and prayer
On Sept. 26, three hundred of us gathered in Manhattan's Peace Memorial Auditorium for a 60th anniversary celebration.
When I arrived, my friend Jim Sharp, one of the planners and a Battle of the Bulge veteran, greeted me warmly. Since I was to be a presenter, he asked me to sit on the front row.
On that same date in 1955, the auditorium had been dedicated. But whether celebrating its birth or its diamond anniversary, the reason for gathering was to honor the 2,610 Riley Countians who served in World War II, the 88 who were wounded and survived and the 101 who died.
I took a seat between Orris Kelly and John Lindholm, also World War II veterans. John was husband Art's former boss and a pilot in the 457th Bomb Group in England. In an example of what a small world we live in, Art's Uncle Pete was also a pilot in the same unit.
After the war, rather than construct a static monument, Manhattan's citizens decided they wanted something that would honor the veterans while also serving the community's future generations. What emerged was a facility with a public seating area that was part gym and part auditorium.
My official connection to the auditorium grew out of my role with the Riley County Historical Society. But I have personal connections to it as well. Mom and her friend Stan attended a Senior Prom there about 10 years ago. I remember being impressed how a basketball court could be converted into a magical place for a dance, complete with twinkling lights and balloons. About two years ago, youngest daughter Katie performed on the stage with her In-A-Chord singing group.
But over the years, the auditorium hadn't been used much due to old stage equipment and lack of air conditioning. There were discussions about converting it into offices for city workers. That's when Jim and others interested in preserving it as a living memorial came together to raise money to revitalize it.
The program took people through a range of emotions. Musical numbers, such as "God Bless America," "Amazing Grace," and "Let There Be Peace on Earth," brought tears, while the Kansas State University pep band playing the "Wabash Cannonball" and similar pieces brought people to their feet.
Yet I think it was a group of 40 students from Northview Elementary School who stole the show with their rendition of "You Are Our Heroes." The youngsters, many dressed in red, white and blue, probably didn't understand how much their song meant to us and especially to the veterans in attendance.
Jim shared a narrative he calls "The Forgotten 101". After the war, Vernon Bates, a World War I veteran and then-commander of the Manhattan American Legion, generated a list of 101 "boys" who died in World War II.
"He had no typewriter, no computer, no historic databases, no Internet," Jim said. "It was a labor of love for him."
Several of us read short biographies of a few of those 101 to make them more than just names on a list. I read one for Ralph C. Hagenmaier, a waist gunner on a B-17 named the Sweet L. O. Ease - probably named for the popular song "Sweet Eloise." On May 27, 1944, a group of planes was heading to a target in Germany. Another B-17 was hit by antiaircraft fire near Calais, France and plummeted toward the earth. On the way down, it struck Sweet L. O. Ease, shearing off its tail. Two men were able to parachute and survived the war, but the rest, including Hagenmaier, died.
Aneta Hagenmaier was at the dedication. Her late husband Rabern's father Leroy was Ralph's cousin.
"It was a very nice event," she said. "It was tear-jerking, in a way, but good to recognize the young men who gave their lives and the World War II veterans who were here."
Dave Fiser, president of the Friends of Peace Memorial Auditorium board, served as emcee. He recalled playing basketball on the court when he was in high school and dancing with his wife on the stage for a hospital benefit.
Dave read the names of all 101 men who perished. Art and I feel particularly connected to them after having spent weeks over the past few months researching their lives. Art has found photos for about 60 and we were able to find birth and death dates, branch of service and parent's names for almost all of them. The hope is to put together short biographies on all 101 and have them available on a kiosk at the auditorium and online as well.
Jim said the current plaque in the foyer of the auditorium lists the contractors, city commissioners and others who were present at the time of the dedication of the building 60 years ago.
"That's fine, and they should be recognized. But we should also recognize those who lost their lives. We need to get 'er done for the 101."
"And Speaking for the 101 boys, I want to ask three things: one, that we require or demand from our leaders that they spend as much time finding peace as waging war; two, that we remember the 101 boys and others who served; and three, that we all pray for peace."
Later, while driving home, I reflected on the day. It seemed to me that everyone from the youngsters to the veterans had a good time on an afternoon that had been equal parts patriotism, pep rally and prayerful remembrance.
Top-left: Northview Elementary School youngsters sing "You Are Our Heroes;" bottom-left: Kansas State University pep band directed by Frank Tracz; right: Gloria with Jim Sharp.