By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
In a small gathering at Edgemont Memorial Park, Montclair celebrated, honored and remembered its veterans.
Community members and leaders gathered Nov. 11 in front of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial in Edgemont Park — originally erected to honor those fallen in World War I, but with plaques later added to remember those who died in later conflicts.
“As we come out today to honor our military veterans, our soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen who have served our community and have served our nation, it’s to come out and honor their commitment,” Mayor Sean Spiller told the audience during the tribute. “We know it’s a sacrifice. It’s a sacrifice not just for them but for their families, for their community, and certainly for our community here in Montclair.”
Rabbi Laurence Groffman, from Temple Sholom of West Essex led the invocation, asking for blessings for the veterans of the United States, and recognition of their service to the nation.
“Bless our veterans, these men and women of courage and valor with a deep and abiding understanding of our profound gratitude,” Groffman said. “Protect them and their families from loneliness and want. Grant them lives of joy and bounty. May their dedication and honor be remembered as a blessing from generation to generation.”
Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock introduced speaker Edward H. Harris from the Crawford Crews American Legion Post No. 251.
“Mr. Harris was born and raised here in Montclair, graduated from Montclair High School in 1953,” Hurlock said. “He spent 20 years in the National Guard, where he retired as a staff sergeant.”
Harris had been a professor at Essex County Community College, Hurlock said. Harris was also an occupational therapist for 20 years, treating patients at Veterans Administration hospitals in Lions and East Orange before retiring.
“He wasn’t retired for very long and he came out of retirement, relocated to California, where he taught adult education for the state’s prison system,” Hurlock said. “[He] returned to New Jersey and worked in the mental health field and job training, and mental health for young people.”
Hurlock also said Harris served for 15 years at The Crawford Crews American Legion Post 251 as the vice commander and post historian.
“I am here today because I want to honor the guys that fought the first World War. They fought 192 days on the front line,” Harris said.
Harris was referencing his post’s namesake, Pvt. Crawford Crews, and three other African American soldiers from Montclair who’d served with the 369th infantry regiment known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” — Corp. Austin Barnes, Corp. Benjamin E. Smith and Pvt. Alonzo Mills. The regiment served on the frontlines longer than any other American Unit. As described in a past announcement from the township, the soldiers were integrated into the French chain of command, and awarded the “Croix de Guerre” by the French government, the first Americans ever to receive the honor.
Harris said for his part, “I did what I had to do. And I want to thank you all for being here. Even though I live in East Orange, I’m still a Mountie.”
Students Bailey Ruff and Valentina Felisbret from Glenfield Middle School talked about the importance and history of Veterans Day.
“The men and women that have served our country have made great sacrifices so we can have the rights and privileges that we have today,” Ruff said. “These people rose beyond the challenges and trials of war, selflessly, leading and serving to ensure the very best for every American.”
She spoke about the history of Veterans Day, originally declared Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, to honor those who’d served in World War I. Later, it became Veterans Day, acknowledging all veterans.
“It’s a day when we honor those who sacrificed and served their nation. They have given their time, their talent and in some cases their treasure to protect our way of life,” Ruff said. “Veterans Day is an important day of awareness. However, many people forget to acknowledge veterans for more than one day a year. Veterans Day should remind us how hard veterans have fought for our country, and that for all the work they’ve done, at the very least deserve year-round appreciation.”
Felisbret highlighted the stories of Montclair residents who’d served in World War II — community members and neighbors.
“The veterans of Montclair didn’t just live on Pine Street, Watchung Avenue and Christopher Street,” she said. “There are countless untold stories of our hometown heroes, including the veterans who live among us today. Today we celebrate our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends and all of our Montclair veterans that sacrificed so much for our wellbeing. We are so grateful for your service.”
Several veterans and families of veterans were in attendance at the tribute as well. Eugene Simmons, a veteran from Montclair, said people should continue remembering veterans for the sacrifices they have made.
“Some of them have made the ultimate sacrifice so we can have peace in the United States,” Simmons said. “We should remember them and honor them every day.”
Allison Sergeant, a Montclair resident whose father fought in World War II, said coming to the annual tribute has become a tradition for her family to share stories about her father in the war.
“I told my children and I told my grandchildren. And I hope they continue that legacy,” Sergeant said.
Some quotes in an earlier version of this post attributed to Valentina Felisbret should have been attributed to Bailey Ruff.