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Did Memorial Day Originate in a Small Pa. Town? Maybe Not, But That’s Okay

Traditions have a way of getting tangled up in fact, myth, and legend, making historical confirmation a bit of a chore.

George Washington, for instance, is often said to have possessed wooden dentures, which is only half true: He had a variety of false teeth, but none of them made of wood.

Calvin Coolidge is said to have been approached by a fellow who had bet he could get the famously withdrawn president to say more than two words, to which Coolidge allegedly responded: “You lose.” Coolidge denied the story ever happened, but “Silent Cal’s” famously laconic style has kept it alive for a century.

Meanwhile, at least two U.S. towns attempt to lay claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day—including Boalsburg, a small, unassuming community about 90 minutes northwest of Harrisburg.

The town is not shy about claiming the mantle, touting itself on its website as the “birthplace of Memorial Day.” It’s not hard to understand why a place would like to boast that designation. Memorial Day is arguably the most hallowed U.S. national holiday, a day when we honor the brave men and women of the country who gave what Abraham Lincoln called the “last full measure of devotion” in service to the United States, its values and its people.

Boalsburg leans into its history. Its official Memorial Day Festival runs a full five days, from Thursday to Monday. The celebration features “food, music and craft vendors complete with two Civil War battle re-enactments,” as well as a solemn service, a charity run, a parade, a carnival,” and more.”

So, how does Boalsburg justify its claim to Memorial Day fame? According to the town, the story “began with a lovely young teenage girl,” as many great stories often do.

In October 1864, as the Civil War was moving toward its conclusion, Emma Hunter “gathered some garden flowers” with her friend Sophie Keller “to place them on the grave of [Emma’s] father, Dr. Reuben Hunter,” who had served in the Union Army. Another local woman, Elizabeth Meyer, “chose to scatter flowers on the grave of her son Amos.”

The women, the town claims, “were participating in their first Memorial Day service.” That observance led to a yearly tradition of grave decoration, with mourners and respectful residents meeting every May to place flowers on the graves of veterans. In 1868, General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30 to be “Decoration Day,” making national what had previously been local to Boalsburg.

Whether or not Boalsburg can truly be said to be the birthplace of Memorial Day depends upon some subtle but notable distinctions. Another town, Waterloo, N.Y., was declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the true birthplace of Memorial Day since that town was celebrating the observance in 1866.

Resolving the dispute depends on how you classify an “observance” of a holiday. If a townwide celebration counts, then Waterloo arguably takes the prize; if a more loosely affiliated (yet still distinct) coalition of citizens is what counts, then Boalsburg is the true originator of the holiday.

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t really matter. Memorial Day is not about competitions between municipalities (even if certain historical designations are good for business). It is about honoring the dead—the Americans who gave their lives for us, our country, and our way of life. The holiday is meant for us, the living, to reflect upon what it means to, in Lincoln’s words, “have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

Logan himself, in making his proclamation, urged a spirit of national unity in honor of the glorious dead, imploring Americans to observe the holiday “that it will be kept up from year to year” and that we might “gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime,” and “raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor.”

It is a good mandate and one we should follow every May. Memorial Day’s origins might be unclear, but its ultimate purpose is as vital today as it was when, and wherever, it was first founded.

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A Quiz for Memorial Day: Presidents’ Fallen Family

The president may be America’s commander in chief, but over the years, many have experienced the same wartime wounds from losing family in battle as their fellow citizens. This Memorial Day weekend, test your knowledge of presidential relatives who made the ultimate sacrifice with this short, easy and fascinating quiz.


1. This president, who received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his own wartime gallantry, was deeply shaken by the loss of his son in World War I.

A. Grover Cleveland

B. William McKinley

C. Theodore Roosevelt

D. Calvin Coolidge

Answer: C.  Quentin Roosevelt, 20, was shot down in aerial combat over France on Bastille Day (July 14) 1918. Roosevelt’s youngest son, he was the only child of a president ever killed in battle.


2. This future president lost two brothers in America’s war for independence.

A. Martin Van Buren

B.  Andrew Jackson

C.  John Adams

D.  John Quincy Adams

Answer: B.  Hugh Jackson died of heat exhaustion after the 1779 Battle of Stono Ferry near Charleston, South Carolina. Robert Jackson died of smallpox after being released from a British prison camp.


3. This president lost several in-laws who died fighting the cause he led.

A. Abraham Lincoln

B. Ulysses S. Grant

C. James Garfield

D. Benjamin Harrison

Answer: A. While Lincoln’s wife, Mary, was devoted to the Union, her younger half-brothers fought for the Confederacy. Two (Alexander and Samuel Todd) were killed. After her half-sister’s husband Brig. Gen. Ben Hardin Helm was killed at Chickamauga, both Lincolns were criticized for Emilie Helm staying with them in the White House.


4. In November 1781, John Parke “Jacky” Custis contracted a fever during the Siege of Yorktown and died at age 26, just 17 days after the British surrender. He was related to which future president?

A. John Adams 

B. Andrew Jackson

C. George Washington

D. Millard Fillmore

Answer: C.  Custis’ mother was Martha Custis Washington. He was George Washington’s stepson and served as the general’s aide-de-camp during the siege. After his death, George and Martha raised Custis’ two youngest children at Mount Vernon.


5.  This future president was decorated for his heroism in World War II. His older brother was killed in the same conflict.

A. Gerald R. Ford 

B. Richard M. Nixon

C. Lyndon B. Johnson

D. John F. Kennedy

Answer: D. While John F. Kennedy fought in the Pacific, older brother Joseph Kennedy Jr. was killed in Europe in 1944 on a mission involving a pilotless aircraft, a forerunner of today’s military drones.


6.  On May 15, 1864, 10 teenage military cadets from the Virginia Military Institute were killed in the Battle of New Market, Va. One was related to which president?

A. George Washington

B. Thomas Jefferson

C. James Madison

D. James Monroe

Answer: B. Thomas Garland Jefferson was 17 and the great-grandnephew of his namesake.


7.  Lt. Charles Carroll Wood was a descendant of an American president, but he died in 1899 while fighting as a citizen of another nation. Which one? 

A. Canada 

B. France 

C. Germany

D. United Kingdom

Answer: A.  Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Wood was Zachary Taylor’s great-grandson. Another ancestor had signed the Declaration of Independence. He was the first Canadian officer killed in the Second Boer War fought in South Africa.


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Media Memorial Day Parade on Tap, Mayor McMahon Remembers Vietnam War

Media Mayor Bob McMahon remembers his year as a soldier in Vietnam like it was yesterday.

He volunteered to serve and, at 24, left for Vietnam in January 1968.

“My dad thought since I had a college degree, I’d get a desk job over there,” McMahon said. “So, I arrived as the Tet Offensive starts. We got off the bus, went to our shacks where we were going to be, and got attacked that night. The next morning a colonel came in front and said to me, ‘You are now in the First Infantry Division. You’re a platoon leader.”

During the Tet Offensive, which got its name from the Asian Lunar New Year holiday, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched coordinated attacks in South Vietnam. The U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries sustained heavy casualties but eventually drove out the Communist forces. However, according to the U.S. State Department Office of the Historian, that event weakened public support for the war in the U.S.

McMahon’s platoon had started out with only 30 men; only nine were left after the bloody first night of the Tet Offensive.

“What we did there, we went out on ambushes, and we also did road duty, guarding roads,” he said. After more people were assigned to the platoon, “we then went down and patrolled the rivers outside of Saigon where Agent Orange came down.” Many have gotten cancer from exposure to that herbicide, including McMahon.

They patrolled six or seven days weekly, drawing out the enemy and radioing in their locations. “We had firefights,” he said.

“The worst day we had was March 31, 1968, when we all got attacked and lost some people,” he said.

“In June, I got the job of my life. I became a senior advisor to the South Vietnam company (Mobile Advisory Team 44). I took over, made good friends with them, got into firefights with them, and really loved working with them. I got to know the Vietnamese people very well.

“I lived in the villages, and that was the best part of it. I loved it.”

In the villages, McMahon protected, trained, and patrolled he was the primary American contact for residents. He oversaw 126 Vietnamese soldiers and worked with his counterpart and the village chief. It was a pilot program for public safety for three villages.

He stayed in Vietnam for a year until his son, Robert, was born, and the Army sent him home. During his time in Vietnam, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

McMahon is also father to Mark and Vicki and has four grandchildren.

When he became mayor in 1992, after serving on Media Borough Council for 10 years, McMahon got involved with the Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day parades.

This year McMahon will be announcing the parade as he always does, along with resident James “Ziggy” Ziegelhoffer.

The parade will start at 10 a..m. on Monday (Memorial Day) in front of the Media Theater on State Street and will end up at the county courthouse, where there will be speeches and a ceremony. He said the Penncrest High School band will be in the parade, along with Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and kids who participate in youth sports. He expects county, state, and federal officials to participate.

He said the Memorial Day parade is shorter and more somber than the Veteran’s Day parade, since it honors those who gave their lives fighting for this country.

McMahon also serves as chairman of the board of directors for the U.S. Veterans Legacy Project. Its mission is to provide a platform for veterans to share their legacy with younger generations by sharing their first-person accounts of what it is like to serve our country.


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Veterans of America’s Wars Know The ‘True Meaning’ of Memorial Day

Marsha Four still remembers the harsh rule.

All fallen soldiers were to remain outside the confines of the 18th Surgical Hospital, which was located south of the Demilitarized Zone. Because the bodies of dead American soldiers were presumed booby-trapped by the enemy, that cruel protocol was meant to save the lives of the other wounded soldiers who were hauled into the inflatable, rubber-tubed medical facility from the battlefields of Vietnam.

Nursing school didn’t prepare Four, now 75, for the horrors she witnessed as an Army nurse in the Vietnam War. She graduated from St. Vincent School of Nursing in Indianapolis in 1968 and was sent overseas a year later, serving in that fast-paced and dangerous environment until 1970.

“If you can kill one GI, why not take out 15 in an emergency room?” Four said. “We had to be very cognizant of that. … You never knew what you were going to face around the corner.”

For her tour of duty in one of the nation’s most unpopular wars, Four earned the Bronze Star and went on to have a successful career stateside in the medical field.

Over three decades, she earned a reputation as a tireless advocate for veterans issues, helping launch the annual Philadelphia Stand Down event and serving as director of services for homeless veterans at the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service & Education Center. She eventually became the nonprofit’s executive director until retiring.

In recognition of her advocacy, Four was named grand marshal of this year’s Radnor Memorial Day Parade. She will ride with her son, Christopher, a lieutenant in the Radnor Police department.

“I know it really only has one true meaning,” Four said of Memorial Day. “It’s the day we give respect and honor to those who sacrificed their lives in defense of this country. If we forget what they have done, we have lost a belief in the strength that we have as a nation. … This is a pretty sacred day for all veterans.”

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Four was the oldest of seven children living a nomadic lifestyle with her father, who worked for a railroad. She remembered each time her family was uprooted and moved somewhere new, her mother told her the same thing.

“This is where you’re going to live the rest of your life, so unpack all your boxes and join an organization,” Four said.

It was advice that she took to heart when, later in life, she was drawn to the Vietnam Veterans of America and would serve for six years as the organization’s vice president.

Her calling was always nursing, as she felt fulfilled by helping others.

“It was the place I was supposed to be. It brought me great satisfaction,” she said.

Even though the Vietnam War was raging when she graduated from college, she never expected to end up overseas when she was first recruited to serve a two-year tour as a combat nurse.

“It was a very alluring [program] because we were pretty poor in school,” Four said.

She was shipped off to basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, and then received her orders from the Army in 1969, boarding a plane for Southeast Asia.

“None of us could have imagined what we would face or what we would see or what we would have to do,” Four recalled.

The work was grueling, nonstop, and traumatic. A constant stream of wounded soldiers arriving at the makeshift hospital. They all had different ailments: Bullet and shrapnel wounds from artillery and booby traps, burns, blown-off limbs from stepping on mines, malaria from the bloodsucking mosquitoes in the swampy jungles.

“You learned real fast,” she said. “We became very proficient at our jobs. We had to make decisions that were not always easy to make. We knew we did as much as we all could do, and sometimes that wasn’t always enough.”

When she returned to the states, the combat nurse spent four months camping around the country with her future husband, Tony, also a Vietnam veteran, in a stripped-out Volkswagen that doubled as an RV.

The couple eventually settled in Springfield, Pa., where they raised their three sons.

Four’s medical and advocacy work afforded her opportunities to meet other Vietnam veterans, some of whom remembered her caring hands.

“A handful of times, I met people who said, ‘I knew you took care of me.’ They know you know what it was like, and I think that there is such a deep connection. In war, everyone is trying to kill each other. No matter what country you’re in, no matter what the culture, no matter what the weapons are, death is the same. The pain is the same. And the blood smells the same. And that’s the thing that all veterans of war share with each other.”

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