Memorial Day events in Columbia and Sauk counties are altered or canceled due to concerns about COVID-19, including Baraboo, where a public observance won’t happen for the first time in at least 80 years.
“We’ve held them as far back as I can remember,” said Phil Wedekind, 87, a Baraboo native and member of American Legion Post 26. “But you got to put safety first because it does bring lot of people together and would put people in jeopardy at this time.”
Baraboo veterans organizations decided against holding their annual program, which, in past years, included a ceremony with speakers at the bridge on Water Street and parade beginning near the senior center, traveling around the Square and concluding at Walnut Hills Cemetery.
Portage and Poynette organizations decided to hold their respective ceremonies but have scaled them back considerably for the public health emergency.
“This is really a unique time in our history and something completely different from anything we’ve ever experienced,” Portage VFW Post 1707 member Dave DuVall said. “Our event will be short, but we still want people to understand Memorial Day is a very important day – a day that we pay tribute to those persons who lost their lives in combat during war and it is not something we felt could be ignored.”
Portage VFW, American Legion Post 47 (Portage) and the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 221 (Portage) will conduct the abbreviated program at 11 a.m. at Blue Star Park, but it’s not open to the public and will be filmed and posted to the city website and Portage Parks and Recreation Facebook page later in the day.
“We’ll play the taps and do the gun salute and that’s about it,” American Legion Post 47 Commander Dean Simonson said. “It will be very simple, but you can’t forget about the veterans, just as right now you can’t forget about the nurses and the policemen and the firemen and the people working at grocery stores – these people are putting their lives on the line, too, they really are.”
American Legion Post 71 in Poynette is likewise doing a gun salute and playing taps on the bugle at its veterans memorial along Main Street, but the event is not exactly open to the public.
“I think as long as people observe it while they’re parked along Main Street or in the parking lot by the police station – from their car or standing alongside their car – my understanding is that should be OK,” said Post 71 member Jim Wrchota, who serves as the commander of the Legion’s Honor Guard. “We just ask that you observe it from a safe distance.”
Normally, the Poynette program is about an hour-and-a-half long at Hilltop Cemetery with speakers including one who reads off the entire list of veterans from the area who died in combat, but circumstances this year dictate an abbreviated ceremony will be held at noon and recorded and posted to the Legion 71 Facebook page later in the day.
“We all felt bad that we couldn’t do it as normal this year,” Wrchota said. “It’s a special feeling when you’re honoring veterans at funerals and programs such as for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but we are able to do something. We didn’t think, ‘OK, the world’s in a bad place, so let’s forget about Memorial Day.’ We didn’t want to do that.”
Without local events, Greenwood Memorial (Baraboo) VFW Post 987 Commander Gerald Parchem encouraged residents to view online the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs’ “Memorial Day 2020: Wisconsin’s Virtual Commemoration,” a statewide observance that will be available at WisVetsMemorialDay2020.com.
Jerry Cummings of the Veterans Memorial Committee in Baraboo said groups will consider combining Memorial Day observances with a Veterans Day program in November.
“Everyone is obviously concerned right now, and because of the age of our members, I think we have to be additionally cautious about getting together,” Parchem said in support of the public enjoying events virtually during the pandemic. “We have to protect our community, our health and immune systems.”
On Saturday, Wedekind and about five younger members of his family placed more than 1,800 flags at veterans’ gravesites in eight cemeteries in Baraboo and surrounding towns. Traditionally, only Legion members would place the flags at the cemeteries for Memorial Day, but Wedekind said that couldn’t happen this year.
“We’re up there in age, and I didn’t want to subject them to the virus,” Wedekind said of taking on the project with his family. “If somebody had gotten sick, I just wouldn’t have been able to handle that. I felt that I could have better control over it by having my own family do it this year.”
Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.
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