A Flag Day celebration on Saturday hosted by American Legion Post 257 in Vineyard Haven will include a parade and rededication ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Veterans Memorial Park. As a special treat, the 45-member Navy Band Northeast from Newport, R.I., will participate.
That evening the band will perform a free concert at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. The morning parade will be canceled if it rains, but not the evening concert, according to Legionnaire organizer, and trumpeter for all occasions, Edson Rodgers.
The Navy Band Northeast will play the National Anthem and patriotic songs during the park ceremony. At 7 pm Saturday night, the band will perform a 70-minute show under the direction of Lt. Commander Carl J. Gerhard, U.S. Navy.
“I think people are in for a treat and are really going to enjoy it,” Lt. Cdr. Gerhard told The Times in a phone call Tuesday. “We’ll play music for all ages — patriotic songs, popular tunes, Big Band, swing, Dixieland — we’ve got it all.”
Veterans and Tisbury town officials, accompanied by the Navy Band, will step off for the parade at 11 am from St. Augustine’s Catholic Church on Franklin Street. The half-mile parade route takes them down Church Street, right on Main Street, right on State Road, and left on Causeway Road down to Veterans Memorial Park.
A rededication ceremony at the park will pay tribute to the hard work and generosity of American Legion members who envisioned its creation and carried the project through the 12 years it took to complete. Legionnaire Fred Thifault, the only remaining member of the park’s original building committee which he joined in 1962, has been invited to participate.
A living memorial
Over five decades, generations of Islanders of all ages have enjoyed Veterans Memorial Park’s sports fields, grounds, and playgrounds. The public park is the hub for soccer, baseball, softball, and volleyball games.
A plaque in the park notes that the land was purchased and the park constructed by “members and friends of Gen. Geo. W. Goethals Post 257, American Legion, Vineyard Haven.”
According to an early fundraising pamphlet, the Legionnaires decided that a War Veterans Memorial Park was more suitable than a memorial made of bronze and granite to honor those who died in war.
“We don’t want a statue’s face, stuck against a stone,” a poem entitled “Appreciation” said. “We would like a living place we could call our own.”
What few people probably realize today is that the park’s ball fields were once literally diamonds in the rough. As the pamphlet described, the park land the Legionnaires purchased was “an unused and seemingly useless hollow covered with tangled thickets and a jungle of reeds taller than a man.” One section they bought in 1951, where Bass Creek headed up, was a swamp with a deep bog-hole.
On December 7, 1951, the Veterans Memorial Park project received a charter as a nonprofit organization.
“There was a job to be done and Legion volunteers went to work,” the pamphlet said. “Perhaps they found assurance in the fact that their post was named for the man who dug the Panama Canal, and chose the Vineyard as his home. As General Goethals connected two oceans, so they would transform a swamp into a 10-acre park.”
It was no small feat, and the project required vision, sacrifice, and dedication. Legionnaires and their friends put in countless hours of voluntary manpower. Mr. Rogers recalled that many of them put in a full day at their regular jobs, then headed to work at the park in the evening.
They cleared the land, drained it, and brought in a total of 60,000 cubic yards of fill. Owners of equipment loaned them trucks that hauled 10,000 loads of earth.
The Legionnaires raised $20,000 over several years through ham-and-bean suppers, dances, auctions, and entertainment events to fund the project’s start-up. Once they began it, they realized that even with those funds, voluntary labor, and donated fill, it would not be enough. Over the next eight years, the Legionnaires conducted fundraisers that brought in more than $30,000 from year-round and summer residents.
About 12 years after they began, the Legionnaires realized their dream. In keeping with a vote at annual town meeting in 1964, Tisbury accepted the War Veterans Memorial Park as a gift from the nonprofit organization formed by American Legion Post 257. Along with the deed to the park, the Legionnaires also presented a check to the town for $6,000, raised through raffles, dances, and suppers, for betterments and improvements.
In 2008 and 2009, Veterans Memorial Park underwent major renovations, at a cost of about $590,000. Tisbury voters gave the town approval to borrow about $493,000 for the project and to appropriate about $100,000 in Community Preservation Act funds towards it. The park was closed to the public and topsoil removed, and new turf and drainage and irrigation systems installed. Two new scoreboards, bleachers, and fountains were also installed. Tisbury held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 12, 2009, to reopen the upgraded park.
In a visit to The Times offices on Monday, Mr. Rodgers said the idea for the park’s 50th anniversary rededication ceremony stemmed from a suggestion from Michael Flynn of Vineyard Haven. While on a walk through the park one day, Mr. Flynn happened to notice the date on the plaque commemorating its gift to the town in 1964 from the American Legion. He called the park’s fiftieth anniversary to the attention of Dukes County Veterans Agent Jo Ann Murphy, who mentioned it at a subsequent Legion Post meeting.
“That’s when the lights went on for me,” said Mr. Rodgers, a musician who formerly served with the Navy Band Northeast before retiring in 1987. “It occurred to me that Flag Day is an opportunity to pay tribute to our country, and here is a group that waves our flag 365 days a year. I asked her permission to seek the band out, to see if we could do a rededication ceremony, and at the same time, a concert.”
With Ms. Murphy’s approval, Mr. Rodgers took the reins as the event’s organizer. He said he ran into a few snags, though, starting with the band’s overnight accommodations.
After calling several local hotels, Mr. Rodgers learned they all require a minimum two-night stay during the summer season. He alerted Lt. Cdr. Gerhard, who took up the search and was able to book 21 rooms at the Vineyard Harbor Motel, thanks to general manager Marcia Moore, who agreed to make a special exception.
“Her help was very much appreciated, because we wouldn’t have been able to pull off the parade, ceremony, and nighttime concert in one day and catch the last ferry,” the band director said.
Navy Band Northeast, established in 1974, is attached to the Naval War College at Naval Station Newport. As one of the U.S. Navy’s 13 official bands stationed worldwide, the group performs over 500 engagements annually in an 11-state area. The band travels in four 15-passenger vans and carries its equipment in a 26-foot truck.
The band performs at the request of the public, through an application process. Although many of its performances are day trips, the band receives operational funding from the U.S. Government for travel expenses, Lt. Cdr. Gerhard said.
“I thought this was a great return on investment, to come out to Martha’s Vineyard and not only play one event, but three,” he said.
Mr. Rodgers said Post 257 will pay a small fee to the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association for use of the Tabernacle, which includes paying an electrician to handle the lights.