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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Memorial Day lights up Mount Hope

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Memorial Day lights up Mount Hope

Still able to fit into his uniform, Omar Vandehey of Banks attended the Memorial Day services Monday. The 79-year-old served in the Army Air Corps during WWII as a flight engineer on a B-29 bomber. He was visiting a brother, Larry, living in Haines. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Still able to fit into his uniform, Omar Vandehey of Banks attended the Memorial Day services Monday. The 79-year-old served in the Army Air Corps during WWII as a flight engineer on a B-29 bomber. He was visiting a brother, Larry, living in Haines. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

In life, Joe O'Connor, a veteran of the Second World War, liked lilacs, not poppies.

So when it came time for his niece, Colleen Collier, and her family to adorn his grave Monday for Memorial Day, the flower of choice didn't require a lot of thought.

Collier decorated her uncle's grave Monday with the lilacs he loved — not the poppies that for so many people signify Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as it is traditionally called.

The poppy tradition around Decoration Day began after the 1915 publication of John McCrae's poem, "In Flanders Field," which describes the flower that will grow in disturbed fields where other flowers cannot.

O'Connor served his nation aboard surveillance aircraft based in Alaska. He returned home to Baker City after the war and ran his beloved gun shop downtown for many years.

He died Jan. 31, 2001, and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery with his sister and ancestors who served the military back to the Civil War.

O'Connor's family was one of 17 families of deceased veterans who have elected over the past year to donate a large American flag to be unfurled and flown during Memorial Day services. Those newest flags were flown Monday at the cemetery for the first time.

Rarely has the final resting place of Baker County's veterans — and hundreds of others who are buried at Mt. Hope — looked so beautiful as Monday, when a crowd of perhaps 150 gathered to honor the nation's war dead during Memorial Day services.

Most of the markers were decorated with flowers, and each grave featured a small American flag. Vehicles lined the roads that crisscross the cemetery as dozens of families arrived Monday morning to show their loved ones respect and to place flowers on their graves. Many people remained after their caretaking chores to attend the annual Memorial Day service.

The day's featured speaker, Truscott Irby, wondered out loud if the holiday — which since a 1971 act of Congress has fallen on the last Monday in May — has become "just another day off to go fishing or camping."

"Why do we remember? Because sacrifices are meaningless without remembering," he said. "Your freedom has been paid for, and it will be paid for again and again by the giving of lives by our young men and women."

Irby urged any educators in the crowd to push both history and English lessons upon their students.

"If we slack off (on requiring students to learn English), it'll separate us," he predicted. "English is important to every citizen. I hope there are teachers here today. I'm trying to remind you what school is for."

An avid student of history himself, ("I loved history in school! I excelled at it!" Irby said) he took the crowd through a brief tour of each of the wars fought since the founding of the Republic.

The nation's first foe, the British, "tried to burn our capitol and shoot our flag out of the sky, but our navy survived," he said. The Spanish-American War "let people know we were a nation that was getting powerful. Our fleet was ‘the stick' that Teddy Roosevelt spoke of, and it was working."

Some of the wars that followed taught the nation valuable lessons, Irby said.

If the Allies had treated the vanquished Germans the same way after the First World War as they did following the Second, "we never would have had to fight a Second World War," he said.

The Vietnam War, which Irby called "the war no one wants to talk about," taught America another lesson, he said: "When we enter our troops into a military action, Vietnam taught us to go in and get the job done."

And ever since, the U.S. has been called upon to solve problems around the globe, he said.

"There's no other nation out there ready to take the responsibility that we have, because they don't have the power to enforce it," he said. "We're not after land or people — we just want the rest of the world to enjoy the freedoms that we have for the past 200 years.

"Will you please get off your chairs and be proud of this country and what we have done? The next time you hear that we're the bully of the world, stop being the ‘silent majority' and tell them what you think."

Irby, himself a veteran, said he'll be "honored" one day to find his eternal rest in Mount Hope Cemetery.

"A lot of us lucked out and came home after the war, but some didn't," he said. "They paid the supreme price, and thank God they were willing to do that."

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