And this year — for the first time in the 50 years he has organized Westport’s annual parade and tribute to fallen service members — the entire event was canceled, due to COVID.
But his family arranged a socially distanced cookout in the driveway of his Cross Highway home.
And in mid-morning — just like every year at Town Hall — Vornkahl heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Taps.”
Nick Rossi sings the national anthem.
The national anthem was sung stirringly by Nick Rossi. The 2019 Staples High School graduate — now a student at Boston College — is a veteran of Veteran’s Green. He played and sang at last year’s ceremony.
The mournful brass notes were sounded by Sam Atlas. The 2018 Staples grad is a trumpet major at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where she plays in the orchestra, wind ensemble and chamber groups.
Sam Atlas plays “Taps.”
It was a fitting tribute for the man who is Westport’s “Mr. Memorial Day.” And he responded as any soldier would:
For decades, Memorial Day in Westport has meant one thing: Bill Vornkahl.
For half a century, he’s run one of our town’s most beloved traditions. Now 90 years old, he spent 14 months in Japan during the Korean War as a high-speed radio operator.
He joined Westport’s American Legion Post 63 in 1953, and the Westport Veterans Council a few years later. He first organized the parade in 1970. In 2013 he was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.
From 1996 to ’99 he was treasurer of Westport’s War Monument Committee, helping place memorials to various wars on Veterans Green.
Bill Vornkahl, at last year’s Memorial Day parade. (Photo/Carmine Picarello)
Today has always been the most important day of the year for Bill Vornkahl. This year, it’s especially tough. Instead of a community-wide parade, Westporters are forced to remain apart.
His wife died a short while ago too, just before what would have been their 66th anniversary.
So as we think of all our veterans, let’s give special thanks to Bill Vornkahl. And what better way to honor him — and all service members — than with the poem he always recites at the Veteran’s Green ceremony after the parade.
It is the soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of press.
It is the soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.
(Poem by Charles H. Province. Hat tip: Janine Scotti)
Once, Westport’s August Matthias American Legion Post 63 had over 100 members.
One of America’s original posts — it was chartered in 1919, a few months after the Legion was formed in the wake of World War I — the veterans’ organization thrived after the 2nd World War.
Now, however, Westport has only a dozen or so members on its rolls. Some spend much of the year in Florida.
Many are World War II and Korean War vets. They won’t be around forever.
The good news: Bill Vornkahl — Westport’s indefatigable veterans’ advocate, and a Post 63 member since 1954 — has pledged to build the post back up.
The American Legion is one of 2 veterans’ organizations in Westport. Named for World War I soldier and Westport native August Matthias, it — like the rest of the Legion — is open to anyone who served in the military in the United States.
The VFW — whose Joseph J. Clinton Post 399 is also named for a Westport veteran, and unlike the American Legion has an actual physical building, on Riverside Avenue — is open to veterans who served outside the US.
For many years, Legion meetings were held at the YMCA downtown. Then Leo Nevas gave part of Birchwood Country Club property to the organization. Eventually Nevas bought back the land. The American Legion used the proceeds for scholarships.
Over the years it also sent Staples High School students to Boys and Girls State, a summer government program; sponsored youth sports teams, and contributed funds to other civic organizations.
American Legion posts around Connecticut also support Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and send students to State Police Youth Week.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Here’s hoping it’s also the beginning of the revival of American Legion August Matthias Post 63.
(To learn more about Westport’s American Legion post, or to join, call Bill Vornkahl: 203-227-3512.)
We do it with one of the town’s most popular and beloved events of the year: a fun, wonderful and wide-ranging parade, followed by a solemn yet uplifting ceremony across from Town Hall.
It’s a huge undertaking. Hundreds of town employees and volunteers pitch in to make it all work. It seems effortless, but it’s anything but.
None of it would happen, though, without the leadership of Bill Vornkahl.
This will be the Westporter’s 49th year at the helm. When he started in 1970, the parade may have included Spanish-American War veterans. Today there are only a few who served in World War II.
Vornhkahl — now 88 years old — is a Korean War vet. He spent 14 months on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, working as a high-speed radio operator in the 1st Cavalry Division.
In 2013, he was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame.
Vornkahl has been a member of the Westport Veterans Council even longer than he’s run the parade: 57 years.
From 1996 to ’99 he was treasurer of Westport’s War Monument Committee, helping place memorials to various wars on Veterans Green.
He joined the Greens Farms Volunteer Fire Company in 1950. He’s served as secretary/treasurer of both that company and Saugatuck Hose Company #4, and as president of the Westport Volunteer Fire Company from 1973 to ’93.
He coached Little League for more than 20 years, and for over a decade was part of the Staples High School football sideline crew.
Vornkahl has dedicated his life to Westport. Of all he’s done, the Memorial Day parade is his special passion. He makes sure it all happens flawlessly.
In 2015, Bill Vornkahl and 3 Girl Scout Daisies recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Of course, the one thing he can’t control is the weather. The last 2 years, predictions of rain have canceled the parade, and moved the ceremonies indoors.
You may have seen him inside Town Hall, introducing the color guard, bands and speakers.
This Monday, we all hope he’ll be outdoors on Veterans Green, doing the same.
He’ll be busy — as he has been every Memorial Day since 1970. So now is the best time to thank him for all he does.
Veterans usually don’t like honors. But Bill Vornkahl is a true Unsung Hero.
Every year, Bill Vornkahl — organizer of Westport’s Veterans Day ceremonies — asks Staples High School assistant principal Rich Franzis to recommend a senior to speak.
Franzis — a veteran himself — always finds an outstanding 12th grader. This year was no exception.
Spencer Daniels — a Staples soccer team captain who has earned a nomination to the US Military Academy — delivered these remarks yesterday.
“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” -G.K. Chesterton
Serving one’s country, motivated by patriotism, is the most honorable commitment one can make. Willingly accepting the negatives of war and battle in order to defend the freedoms we have been blessed with is, honestly, incredible.
Spencer Daniels delivers Veterans Day remarks at Town Hall.
All those who have dedicated their lives to serving our country know one thing for certain. While in service, as well as civilian life, the primary list of priorities, and the basis for nearly all vital decisions, is Mission, Men, Me, or “M.M.M.”
Soldiers, and thus veterans, have a different set of values from others. Typically, individuals are motivated to help themselves. Soldiers cannot have this mentality.
As a United States Military Academy commit, I have already begun applying this to my own life. I began to understand the true meaning of MMM after speaking with Sean Gallagher, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, who also happens to be a former Staples soccer player. He guided me through everything he experienced that led him to follow the Mission, Men, Me structure. He did this in order to help me lead our soccer team in the best way possible.
He helped me understand that the mission, which is winning the state championship, matters most. Everything that our team does must help us achieve our mission.
The next most important thing on the priorities list is my teammates. Unhappy, lethargic and disappointed teammates would hurt us, so my second priority was to ensure that all players were happy, respected, and valued.
Finally, if there is room, I can worry and focus on myself. However, mission and men always come before me.
Spencer Daniels (3rd from right) gives everything he has on the soccer field in a pre-season scrimmage. The back of Staples’ t-shirts say “MMM.” (Photo/Frances Rowland)
After learning more about MMM, we decided to order Staples soccer preseason jerseys that had no numbers, but merely just MMM. This allowed us to focus more on our mission. Instead of everyone with their own numbers, we decided to represent our team as unified. With these preseason shirts, we showed that we were not a bunch of individuals playing together, but rather a team.
Now, enough about myself. The main message of my speech to you is that the patriotism, as well as the commitment to service, that was alive in all of your generations, is still much alive today. Although it may not always seem like it, commitment to service and country, as well as patriotism, are qualities present in my generation.
We have these qualities embedded in our roots due to the brave men who served before us. Our generation still feels the immense patriotism that many of your generations have passed onto us, and that will never fade for Americans.
We still feel, although it is not tangible, the struggle and pain you went through in order to ensure our freedom, protection, and the American way of life.
Spencer Daniels with Bill Vornkahl, longtime organizer of Westport’s Veterans and Memorial Day celebrations.
So many teenagers still feel the obligation to serve, and I am proud to call myself one of these people. I, just like every other individual who chooses to serve, have service and patriotism embedded in my bones.
When I was 5 years old, I decided to have a military birthday party. I found doing PT and fighting invisible enemies far more interesting than a magician. I believe that my decision to serve our country began when I was just a little boy. One great influence on me was my great-grandfather, an Air Force veteran, who ran my birthday party.
On top of just myself, many of my classmates, even in a school with incredible wealth like Staples, choose to serve. Instead of following the “normal” path of going to college, becoming a banker, and making a ton of money, there are many individuals who want to join the military. Currently we have 5 applicants to service academies, and 7 individuals who are committed to enlisting immediately after high school graduation.
Service and patriotism run through all servicemembers’ blood, and is passed down from generation to generation. Those of you who have served have passed down, through your service, undeniable traits of patriotism and commitment to service.
While many of my classmates decide to compare cars, wealth, and other material possessions, we 12 have committed to serving our country. Without previous generations and their commitment to protecting our country, that number would be zero, and we would see those traits fade with every generation.
So for those who served, I would like to personally thank each and every one of you. Without you, I would not have to opportunity to serve. I am truly blessed, and proud to call all of you veterans of the United States Armed Forces.
Veterans such as my great-grandfather have had a significant impact on my choosing to serve. Without veterans, I would not have made the decisions that I have made.
I look forward to following in your footsteps as a leader in the armed forces. I appreciate the time you have given me, and I hope I will make all of you proud. Thank you.
The threatened heavy rain never materialized. But the forecast moved today’s Memorial Day ceremony into Town Hall.
An overflow crowd jammed Town Hall, for the Memorial Day celebration. It was powerful, impactful — and for everyone there, from World War II veterans to youngsters born in the 21st century — very, very important.
(All photos by Dan Woog unless otherwise noted.)
92-year-old Leonard Everett Fisher — a former grand marshal — wears his World War Ii uniform proudly.
Troop 39 Boy Scouts lead the Pledge of Allegiance.
Grand marshal Joe Schachter — a 90-year-old World War II vet — poses with a patriotic fan. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)
Grand marshal Joe Schachter asked all the veterans in the auditorium to stand. Bob Satter and Sam Brody delightedly shook hands.
The color guard stands at attention.
An Army veteran takes in the ceremony.
Bill Vornkahl has organized Westport’s Memorial Day parade for 46 years. That’s several decades longer than these fife and drum corps members have been alive.
Navy veteran John Brandt stands as the Staples High School band plays “Anchors Aweigh”…
…and Army veteran Sam Brody does the same for “The Caisson Song.”
A Vietnam veteran stands silently. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)
Many organizations worked for days on their floats. The parade cancellation was disappointing — but here’s a chance for “06880” readers to see what they missed:
The Westport Woman’s Club float included Miggs Burroughs as George Washington (or is it Yankee Doodle?). (Photo/courtesy of Dorothy Curran)
Westport’s state champion 10-and-under softball team, and the 12-and-under runnersup, were all set to march (well, ride). (Photo/courtesy of Steve Axthelm)
The Y’s Men usually win the float competition. This year’s theme was “Tomb of the Unknowns.” (Photo/courtesy of John Brandt)
Finally, if you really missed this year’s parade — take a look at this one video. It’s from 2005, courtesy of Doug Harrison.
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