Growing up in Elk River, mayor says holiday has taken on greater meaning for him since he was a child

Greg Artman, the adjutant for the Elk River American Legion, asked me to speak about what Memorial Day means to someone who grew up in Elk River and has lived here for a long time.

I admit that I had to give that a lot of thought. I have also done some research on the history of Memorial Day in our city. I moved to Elk River in 1953 when my dad bought a grocery store in town. (The Olde Main Eatery is now in the building that housed our original store.)

My first recollection of Memorial Day is watching my dad trying to fit into his Army uniform. It was a challenge but he always seemed to get the job done. Then it was finding a place downtown to sit and watch the annual parade of veterans. My in-laws, Dean and Gloria Bailey, veterans of the Navy and Coast Guard respectively, also joined the parade every year.

As an elementary student, I didn’t really understand what a veteran was. I just remember all these people in different uniforms walking down Main Street to the bandshell where there was a program. Then we would go over to the bridge where they would throw a wreath full of flowers into the river and fire their guns.

My research showed that the veterans parade took place every Memorial Day from 1948-1972. The veterans would assemble near the old Sherburne County Courthouse and walk to the bandshell followed by an occasional band and some Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

The Memorial Day program moved to Handke School (then called the South Junior High) in 1973. The veterans would walk from the school to the Memorial Park just west of the Methodist Church where a program would be held. That lasted through 1984, which turned out to be the last year of the annual parade.

From 1985-1987 the Memorial Day program took place behind the First National Bank building at Riverfront Park. It was moved to Lion John Weicht Park in 1988 and remained there through 2018.

As a kid I always looked forward to Memorial Day, but probably for the wrong reasons. It was a day I didn’t have to go to school, but I did get a chance to see my dad in the parade.

I didn’t realize until later in my life how important his military service was to my dad. He took great pride in having served his country during World War II. He served in a tank in France and he always had plenty of stories to tell about his time there.

Later in life my dad never failed to attend his annual Army reunion. He even hosted it in Minneapolis one year. I could tell the bond he had formed with his fellow soldiers was one that could never be broken.

I served six years in the Army Reserve but would never compare my experience to what my dad went through. As I grew into my teens I kept attending the Memorial Day celebrations in Elk River and began to understand what a veteran really was and what they had done for our country.

Every year speakers on Memorial Day would talk about people that gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country. I know that meant that they had given their life in service but it took a while to dawn on me that I had benefited by their effort. They fought to defend America, to keep it a free country and to allow those of us at home to continue with our normal daily lives.

During those annual parades I saw veterans that showed the physical effects that their service has had on them. Many came back home with physical and mental issues caused by their service. We as a country could certainly do a much better job caring for those who put their life on the line for us. Sometimes I think they get forgotten and are left to suffer alone. That is just not right.

I think that I have attended nearly every Memorial Day celebration in Elk River since my youth. It is a day to pause and celebrate our country’s heroes. In reality we should be thankful for our veterans every day of the year.

While I have always enjoyed everything about Memorial Day in Elk River, I have found myself paying much more attention to the program speakers in recent years. The meaning of the day is not lost on me.

I am very proud of what we try to do for veterans in Elk River. The American Legion, the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Elk River group and many others step up and do what they can for our vets.

I would like to take a step back to the past though. I am working on trying to re-institute the annual Memorial Day parade. I envision it be led by the local veterans. I also hope to have the Legion, the Auxiliary, the Yellow Ribbon group, the VFW, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and hopefully the District 728 band involved. It is still a work in progress but hopefully it will be ready for 2022.

For my dad and many other veterans life is about God, family and country and not necessarily in that order. Today, especially is a day when we should go out of our way to remember the fallen and thank the living for their sacrifice. —Elk River Mayor John Dietz

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