Ernie Harpster took the theft personally.
How could he not? His name is on the Gatesburg veterans monument from which two matching statues were pulled off and stolen last spring. One of his sons is recognized. So are many Harpsters, most of them kin.
Few of the names from World War II on belong to strangers; Harpster knows or knew most of them. Gatesburg has been his lifelong home.
That’s why the robbery upset him as though his own house had been burglarized.
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“No respect for our veterans, who have given everything in some cases,” he said, standing before the monument on a recent afternoon. “It’s very terrible.”
For whatever pitiful reason, the roughly 2-foot, partially bronze statues — each a pair of boots with an upturned rifle topped with a helmet — were pried from the monument’s wings one night in late March. Harpster discovered the larceny.
“I came in here to do some work and spraying and saw they were gone,” he said.
This wasn’t just low — more like bottom of the cesspool.
Greed or malice or both had marred a product of generosity. Harpster and his neighbors had led a fundraising campaign that collected $20,000.
“It was a big undertaking to do the best we could,” Harpster said.
After the monument was built and dedicated on Aug. 8, 2007, campaign organizers gave surplus funds to local churches.
A community had built a source of pride. All it took to degrade it were a tiny mind and a large tool. Anger rippled through Gatesburg and western Ferguson Township. Police notified pawn shops and salvage yards in the region, and the investigation continues.
Meanwhile, residents weren’t going to remain victims. No sir. They raised money once. They could do it again.
And they did.
Currently, the fund for new statues stands at about $1,729. Another $200 or so, and Harpster and others who maintain the monument can order twin replacements, thanks to donations from about 15 individuals — including a retired Navy admiral — and groups such as the Pine Grove and State College VFW posts.
Last August, at Gatesburg’s annual summer picnic near the monument, $100 filled a donation jar by the end of the event.
“We’re almost there,” Harpster said.
When they reach the magic figure, the plan will be to wait until spring to install the statues and restore the monument to its full glory. But something else in Gatesburg has been lost — a sense of safety.
Since the original statues disappeared, a motion detector system that triggers flood lights helps guard the monument. For extra security, Harpster and the rest of the Gatesburg Lutheran Church grounds committee are going to install a surveillance camera nearby.
Harpster is resigned to the future statues’ vulnerability.
“If somebody wants them, they’re going to get them,” he said. “We’re going to try to discourage them.”
Bucolic Gatesburg is a little different these days. The times have caught up to it. Gatesburg Lutheran Church, just across the road from the monument with delicate stained glass windows and burnished wooden pews, never was locked for decades — until now.
Trust is harder to restore than objects. You can glue a broken vase back together, but the damage can’t be erased. It won’t be whole as before.
In a despicable act, some low-life thief or thieves did more than desecrate a monument to brave people. They committed another crime.
They wounded a community.