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Veterans win battle

November 12, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

As Rusty Baker mounted the temporary stage on Memorial Boulevard in Hagerstown, he raised his arm in the air. As he pumped his fist in celebration, he drew applause from the several dozen veterans gathered in the closed-off roadway Friday afternoon.

The veterans had beat City Hall.

Standing beside Hagerstown City Council members Lewis C. Metzner and Penny May Nigh, and Mayor Richard F. Trump, the Washington County Highway Department machinist and AMVETS Post 10 commander claimed the victory.

"I believe this plaque proves that the City of Hagerstown does listen to the veterans," the 58-year-old Baker said, speaking of the peace-time battle over the city's failed proposal to rename portions of Memorial Boulevard. He never mentioned baseball great Willie Mays.

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Trump, who likewise kept talk of Willie Mays Way from his lips, offered a similarly veiled concession.

"Thank you very much, and I believe it's true that the City of Hagerstown does listen to its veterans."

With Bester Elementary School in front of them, the Rose Hill Cemetery behind them, and Municipal Stadium down the road and out of eyesight, Trump, Baker and other dignitaries unveiled a monument forever dedicating: "Memorial Boulevard To all veterans of wars who made the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefields of the world to keep America free."

"This plaque will be a permanent reminder of the contributions of the men and women in our United States armed forces," guest speaker retired Maj. Gen. Boyd Cook said. "The role of the military service member is the story of each individual who accepted the call of duty. The dedication of this monument today will serve as a lasting reminder of their service to the nation."

Last spring, the occasion seemed an uncertain outcome to a chain of events that drew national attention and branded the city as a cauldron of racist sentiment.

In August 2004, Hall-of-Fame baseball player Mays accepted a public apology from then-Mayor William M. Breichner at the Municipal Stadium where Mays played his first professional game in 1950 in the shadow of segregation. Then with the Trenton Tigers, Mays was forced stay in a separate hotel from his white teammates while in town, and he faced racial jeers from those in the stands at the stadium when he stepped on the field.

As a gesture, the city temporarily renamed a section of Memorial Boulevard, from South Potomac Street to Eastern Boulevard, as Willie Mays Way. In the spring, the city moved to permanently rename the roadway. The proposal upset many area veterans who claimed doing so would disrespect the memory of their fallen comrades by taking the honor away from them.

Others in support of the proposal claimed the veterans opposed it not because it would take something away from the veterans, but rather because, even though he served in the Korean War, Mays was black.

In May, the five-member council voted unanimously to rededicate Memorial Boulevard to honor war veterans, ending the protracted debate both inside and outside of City Hall.

"It's in that spirit that we gather in our community today," Trump told the crowd. "We need to keep our veterans and our soldiers of war in our hearts every day."

Following the ceremony, Baker proclaimed conversationally: "We got it, didn't we?"

Baker, who entered the Air National Guard in 1967 and served stateside until 1972, said for him the dispute was never about race. It was, he said, singularly about taking an honor away from veterans.

"There was no, there was no racial element at all," Baker said. "It could've been Joe DiMaggio, it could have been Mark Spitz, or anybody.

"They were taking away from veterans," he said. "I did not like it, I did not like it at all."

Baker said he felt the ceremony meant more to him considering the defeated proposal to rename the roadway Willie Mays Way than it might have if the city had initially proposed to rededicate the road in honor of veterans.

"Yes, we have a victory here today," he said. "Now we know they can't take it away from the veterans."

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