Solemn tribute: Section of Route 144 named for Centre County native killed in Vietnam War

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The dedication of a marker or structure for a recently fallen member of the military is not an uncommon practice.

The dedication of a section of road for a Marine who died in Vietnam is a bit more unusual.

Nevertheless, a crowd of about 80 gathered Tuesday at the American Legion Post 779 in Centre Hall to celebrate the renaming of a section of state Route 144 in honor of Pfc. Donald Ray Lucas.

Lucas, born in 1948, was a native of Centre Hall. After joining the Marine Corps, he began a tour of Vietnam in November 1968, according to the state House bill renaming the route.

He was killed in January 1969 by a grenade in the Quang Nam province, according to the National Archives.

The bill was introduced to the state legislature by Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, who spoke at the ceremony. Benninghoff said the bill was passed on the last hour of the last day of sessions for the year.

“As we draw close to the holiday, some would ask why we do this so close to the holiday,” he said. “I say, why not?”

The season is meant for giving, sharing and remembrance, he said. It’s a fitting time to remember someone who served his country.

The crowd that gathered Tuesday was there to say Lucas hasn’t been forgotten, he said, and to tell his family that as well. He likened it to the time he worked in a hospital and saw many people pass in many different situations.

“Survivors are thankful to say goodbye,” Benninghoff said, “to tell someone we love and care and that their life mattered.

“Sometimes in the military, that doesn’t happen.”

Even 45 years later, a family needs closure, he said after the ceremony. Whether Tuesday’s dedication provided that or not, he couldn’t say. But he mentioned that Lucas’ mother, Viola, 94, who attended, said she could rest more peacefully knowing her son wouldn’t be forgotten.

The push to have the road renamed was inspired by Jim Hironimus, a former Centre County resident who graduated high school with Lucas’ brother Roy in 1969 — the same year Lucas died.

A veterans advocate and Air Force retiree, Hironimus said he kept seeing other roads dedicated to different military personnel, such as the dedication to Sgt. Adam Hartswick in September.

“Back then, no one wanted to do anything for the veterans,” he said.

Lucas’ sister, Jean Greenaway, said she appreciated the hard work that went into getting the dedication passed and putting the signs up.

“It was just kind of unbelievable that after all these years, that they would do something,” she said.

She described Lucas as a “country boy,” saying that she knew from letters that being in Vietnam wasn’t an easy tour.

“He said many nights they didn’t get to sleep because of all the fighting and bombs,” she said.

His brother, Roy, said it was unbelievable that someone would go through the trouble of renaming the route for them, saying “You expect it for the higher generals and that, but it’s really nice that they’re honoring some of the private soldiers.”

Greenaway said before Lucas left, his last big thrill was seeing Gettysburg.

For his service, Lucas was awarded a Purple Heart, the National Defense Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal, all of which were on display during the ceremony.

The dedicated stretch of Route 144 lies along Old Fort Road, between the intersection of state routes 144 and 45 in Centre Hall and the intersection of Route 144 and U.S. Route 322 in Potters Mills.