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A farewell for Warden Fitzberger

April 15, 2007|By Lloyd "Pete" Waters

It was a beautiful spring morning, as I drove to Hagerstown to pick up my friends Tom Mellott and Joe and Mary Stains-Ecker for a journey to Arlington National Cemetery. Tom is a major at the Northbranch prison in Cumberland and Mary Stains-Ecker is a retired warden's secretary from the Maryland Correctional Institution just outside of Hagerstown.

We were traveling to the Arlington Cemetery on this day to say our farewells to Preston Fitzberger, who served as the warden of MCI-H from 1961 to 1968. As we arrived at the cemetery, the family and friends of Mr. Fitzberger were escorted to the staging area. A full military band greeted the funeral procession. As the band played, six military pallbearers removed the casket from the hearse and placed it on a carriage, which was pulled by two black horses. The group then gathered behind the band, pallbearers and carriage for the slow, somber walk to the final resting place of Preston Fitzberger.

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As I followed in the procession behind the carriage, I soon realized that Preston Fitzberger's 94 years of life would now simply be defined by that little dash between 1913-2007.

That dash would contain all the memories of people who knew Mr. Fitzberger over those years. I knew I was privileged to be one of them. Even the birds softly chirping in the nearby budding trees of spring seemed to realize in a quiet and respectful way, that this man was special. The dirt waiting to embrace the body of Mr. Fitzberger was the most sacred soil of this country. I knew already his soul had reached a safe destination.

Preston Fitzberger was a man of short stature, but one filled with the courage and life of a giant. Tom Brokaw would rightly describe Mr. Fitzberger's era as "the Greatest Generation" for many reasons. This man's story, too, requires a special moment of reflection.

He was one of the last wardens to live on the prison grounds at MCI-H, from 1961 to 1968. He served as the warden of that facility and lived in an old, beautiful stone house which I had the occasion to refurbish during my own career as warden there.

During his tenure, Mr. Fitzberger's wife Ida and daughter Patricia stayed with him on the prison grounds, and inmate trustees would help with the maintenance of the house, gardens and landscaping. Warden Fitzberger was actively involved in quelling two major riots. One disturbance occurred at MCI-H in 1966 and another at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in 1968. He seemed to have a knack for saving the day while confronting difficult odds.

Several years ago, during correctional-employee's week, I invited the Fitzberger family back to MCI-H for a visit. I delighted in spending the entire day with them and had Mr. Fitzberger address the 4-12 shift roll call. After talking with him, I soon discovered that he was, indeed, a very, very special man.

He had retired as a lieutenant colonel from the military, and on June 6, 1944, he had been assigned to the 29th Infantry Division. This was the famous unit that relentlessly attacked the enemy on Omaha Beach during the decisive battle of World War II, and is vividly depicted in the opening scenes of the movie "Saving Private Ryan." Preston Fitzberger was proud of his duty to his country and returned to Europe to commemorate that victory on D-Day some 50 years later on the anniversary of that battle.

As military chaplain Gray conducted Mr. Fitzberger's eulogy, he reminded all of us that as a soldier, Lt. Col. Fitzberger served his flag and country well. On this 28th day of March, his country's flag would now honor him. I felt the pride of these words tingle throughout my body as the graveside services were nearing an end.

The seven riflemen fired three volleys over the casket and taps was played one last time in farewell to the old soldier. Captain Ridenour and the honor guard from the Maryland Correctional Institution stood sharply nearby. There is a kinship of the strongest bond between all military soldiers, as I know first hand from wearing the Army uniform. I also believe there is a similar bond between prison employees that remains long after one's retirement.

As I said my farewell to Mr. Fitzberger's family, I glanced in awe while surveying the white tombstones neatly situated in rows throughout the fields of the Arlington National Cemetery. Graves of the Unknown Soldier, John F. Kennedy and the eternal flame, General John "Black Jack" Pershing, Audie Murphy and many others dot the landscape of this hallowed ground.

Preston Fitzberger, too, now rests deservingly among the heroes of this cemetery, along with his wife Ida who is buried next to him. He was a fine soldier, a fine warden and a most honorable man who valued his God, family and country. How can you do any better than that?

In saying my farewell to Preston Fitzberger, I, too, have concluded that he was, in fact, a member of the greatest generation. Our world today is a better place because of the sacrifices of people like Mr. Fitzberger. I am saddened by the thought that this generation is almost gone - they have left far too soon. Farewell old friend and "thanks again" for all you did.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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