Boalsburg remembers the fallen on 150th anniversary of Memorial Day

crosenblum@centredaily.comMay 26, 2014 

— On the day when Boalsburg celebrated 150 years of history, it was only fitting to honor a woman who dedicated decades to the heritage.

The initial spotlight of Boalsburg’s 150th Memorial Day service shined Monday on Margaret Tennis, a village fixture.

Tennis, 85, received state and congressional commendations from State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, and U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, respectively, for her service to Boalsburg and its Memorial Day celebration.

A village resident since 1952, she and her late husband, Ken, helped found the Boalsburg Village Conservancy in 1973 and the Boalsburg Heritage Museum nine years later.

In addition, she has served as one of the holiday festival’s main organizers since it first lined the village’s streets with food, crafts and live music 33 years ago.

“As long as there has been a heritage movement appreciating the rich history of Boalsburg, the American village, there has been Margie Tennis, nurturing and leading the effort with her smile and her positive energy,” said Christopher Lee, the CEO of Boal Mansion and the conservancy president.

Tennis, sitting in a wheelchair, basked in applause from the crowd before accepting her commendations and congratulatory handshakes from the two politicians.

Benninghoff earlier had noted Boalsburg’s famous bronze statue of Elizabeth Myers, Sophie Keller and Emma Hunter, the three village women credited with starting the Memorial Day tradition in 1864 by placing flowers on the graves of Myers’ son, Hunter’s father and then other fallen Civil War soldiers.

“Margaret, I was thinking about this,” Benninghoff said. “I could only see you as part of that statue. Maybe we ought to have a fourth figurine there because (of) your kindness and love for the community.”

On a warm evening marked by a steady breeze, Boalsburg once again solemnly honored the American men and women lost in battle or to time.

But this year beside the Zion Lutheran Church, it also commemorated the sesquicentennial anniversary of a point of pride: starting the Memorial Day tradition four years before the first official observance.

Though a few other communities make the same claim, Boalsburg steadfastly maintains its distinction.

“Our forefathers have entrusted us with this sacred honor, to carry forward this remembrance,” Lee said. “And we do so with the greatest sense of honor, the greatest sense of reverence.”

As in past years, a community procession from the Village Diamond to the cemetery preceded the service, capping a day of Civil War re-enactments, music, food, antique cars and commerce.

At the cemetery, Troop 380 Boy Scouts fulfilled their customary duty of raising the flag, and local Girl Scouts once again placed flowers on the graves of 51 Civil War soldiers.

But even beyond its historic significance, Monday’s ceremony was special.

It provided a triumphant punctuation to Boalsburg’s recovery from a shocking crime. Earlier this month, a vandal or several knocked over dozens of gravestones in the cemetery.

But thanks to a groundswell of local outrage and fundraising, all the graves were restored in time for Memorial Day.

Boalsburg also welcomed a distinguished guest.

Gov. Tom Corbett first walked down Church Street in the procession. When it was his turn to speak after an introduction of “Stars and Stripes Forever” by the Air National Guard Band of the Northeast, he joined the Margaret Tennis fan club.

“To Margaret, congratulations,” Corbett said. “You don’t look at all your age, and you put in 200 years of work in those 85 years.”

Then Corbett turned his attention to Boalsburg and Memorial Day.

“Today, we do celebrate,” he said. “We celebrate sacrifice. We celebrate courage. We celebrate the memory of brave men and women who fought for our freedom and our ideals.”

While he spoke, a small group of protesters to the side held aloft anti-fracking signs in reference to his support of the natural gas industry. But they didn’t interrupt Corbett as he recalled how Boalsburg’s example helped a nation heal from a cataclysmic war.

“The Civil War had been our costliest war in terms of Americans,” Corbett said. “Entire towns were left in mourning and a sense of loss, the empty spaces left in so many homes and hearts.

“It called for some way to allow our nation to mourn, to grieve, but also to hope and also to honor, to acknowledge that these soldiers would never again walk among us, but that their spirits and courage could live with us.”

Since the day Myers, Keller and Hunter banded together to honor Boalsburg’s veterans, America has fought many battles, Corbett said.

“And we’ve lost too many soldiers on battlefields across the globe and on the seas,” he said. “This year we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the one that gave birth to Veterans Day. We’ve built memorials, put up statues, written songs and books about the sacrifices of our veterans.

“But the tradition that started here has inspired a nation to remember, to remember the men and women who will forever rest in our soil, facing an American sky.”

He continued by saying, “The tradition that began here over the graves of two Civil War soldiers has been honored faithfully over the graves of soldiers brought home from places with names like Flanders, the Marne, Normandy, Inchon, Khe Sanh and Fallujah.

“Pennsylvania is the birthplace of our national freedoms as well as the birthplace of Memorial Day. I ask all Pennsylvanians to take a moment today and remember what began here 150 years ago.”

Boalsburg resident Lizzie Gilpatrick, a Mount Nittany Middle School seventh-grader, reinforced the message by reading her winning Memorial Day essay from the Boalsburg Village Conservancy’s annual contest.

“Memorial Day is a day of honor and respect,” she said. “Decorating the graves of veterans is just one small, but very important, way that we can honor soldiers and show that we hold them in high esteem.”

Lizzie, who met Corbett before the service, said the cemetery vandalism inspired her to write.

“Vandalism of anyone’s headstone is disrespectful,” she read from her essay. “Vandalizing a soldier’s headstone goes against Memorial Day’s purpose.”

The Rev. Brent Book, of Zion Lutheran Church, emphasized the day’s importance in his closing prayer.

“For 150 years, we and the generations preceding us have come to this place and appropriately gathered to remember the honorable sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives for the cause of freedom and for the protection of this, their nation’s citizenry,” he said.

“Such sacrifice behooves such remembrance and honor.”

Boalsburg completed another page in its history with a 21-gun rifle salute; ceremonial blasts of the Battery B, 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment re-enactors’ cannons; and the traditional taps played by a lone bugler.

Then Zion Lutheran Church’s bell rang across the twilight, sounding the end of one tribute and the start of the countdown to the next.

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.

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