Nearly everyone knows that Ellis County annually puts on one of the most moving tributes to veterans in the United States.
This year’s event will take place at 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 8 at the Waxahachie Civic Center.
Few however, know the story behind the story — and how we happen to have an incredible monument honoring the heroes from Ellis County who made the ultimate sacrifice during the 20th century.
This monumental monument and tribute event annually attended by thousands each November actually began over a cup of coffee back in the late 1990s.
For years, Waxahachie residents Perry Giles and David Hudgins had been talking about the need to recognize veterans from the community that served their country during the wars of the 20th century.
Without question, Ellis County has a number of monuments and markers noting the community’s rich and historic past dating from the pioneer days through the Civil War.
For Giles and Hudgins, both amateur historians, they knew well the price local heroes paid for our freedom during World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
They had no shortage of ideas.
But there were two major problems — a location for the monument and the money to pay for it.
In the late 1990s, the city of Waxahachie passed a bond referendum to construct the Waxahachie Civic Center at the intersection of U.S. Highway 287 and Interstate 35E. At the crux of the major intersection dissecting the county, it was a perfect location for a countywide monument — and there was space available on the grounds for its construction.
That sparked the call from Giles to Hudgins, and the meeting at a local café — and the conversation over a cup of coffee that served as the catalyst that created the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Committee.
From that very humble beginning, a movement was created.
Giles and Hudgins worked with the city, who agreed to donate the land for the monument — but only if the committee could secure the funds to make it a reality.
Not to be deterred, Giles, Hudgins and the panel comprised initially of less than 10 people began a major fundraising campaign throughout the county.
For decades, Giles had been combing through Daily Light archives and walking through cemeteries in the area, compiling a lists of veterans from Ellis County killed in action from World War II through the present day. His research went well beyond jotting down names, however.
He had compiled notebooks filled with information about each individual — in some cases, so much information he felt like he knew them and was there beside them in their final moments.
KBEC AM 1390 Radio and the Waxahachie Daily Light partnered in the fundraising drive. Along the way, the idea was tossed out with Giles volunteering to write a first-person account of several of the veterans whose names are now engraved on the black granite tablets that comprise part of the monument.
Those accounts, researched and written by Giles, were published in the Light, along with a form for residents to clip out, enclose a check and mail into the committee.
The funds started pouring in, but it wasn’t enough to finish out the entire monument — at least on the scale the committee had hoped for.
I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much of his time and money Giles and his company, Giles Monument, donated to this project.
A goal had been set to dedicate the memorial in conjunction with Veterans Day 2001. As summer turned into fall, time was running out, and speaking from first-hand experience at having been at every one of those meetings, Perry Giles refused to waiver when it came to missing the deadline — or cutting corners on a monument befitting the honor of those listed on the tablets deserved.
Aside from hiring contractors to run the cranes to lifted the heavy granite tablets, nearly all the work at the monument was done by volunteer labor of the committee members — mostly by Giles and Hudgins, both of whom took the entire week off of work before the dedication just to work on the project.
To dedicate the monument, the committee had planned a special ceremony for Saturday, Nov. 10, 2001. No one on the committee had any idea how many would attend, but for those who did, everyone wanted to make it an event they would never forget.
Eagle Scouts from a local Boy Scout troop read five of the first-person accounts of the veterans that had been written by Perry as a tribute to honor their sacrifice and to keep their memory alive for future generations.
KBEC’s Ken Roberts served as the master of ceremonies for the event.
There was patriotic music.
And recognition of the veterans from all branches of service and eras.
Following the official program, a wreath was laid at the base of the monument, accompanied by a 21-gun salute and the playing of Taps.
As we all stood around the monument shivering in the November cold, many with tears streaming down their faces, the sky was suddenly filled with World War II-era warbirds flying over in tribute before circling around for one more pass.
It was truly one of those moments that moves you and one you never forget.
Initially, the ceremony had only been thought of as part of the monument’s dedication event.
Turning it into an annual event honoring all of America’s veterans was idea that began immediately after the inaugural ceremony when scores of residents approached Giles and Hudgins asking what were they going to do for Veterans Day 2002?
The tradition was born.
Like the monument, each year’s ceremony is funded entirely through donations. It costs a lot to put the program together — from the facility rental to purchasing the fuel for the Commemorative Air Force Fly-Over (the fuel alone is more than $5,000) to the printing of the programs. That doesn’t include all the volunteer honors and donated in-kind gifts that make each year’s event a day to remember.
Giles still researches and writes about the veterans whose names are engraved on the black granite tablets at the memorial. From the Fourth of July through Veterans Day, those stories are published in both the Daily Light and Midlothian Mirror, with a coupon urging readers to clip and send a check to help fund the upcoming veterans program.
This year’s special tribute will be read by Chad Colston, who will be honoring Jessie Cleveland of Ennis and killed in action during the D-Day invasion of World War II.
Ken Roberts still MC’s the event, that seems to get bigger, better and more emotional each year.
This year’s program, the 14th annual Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Ceremony, will start at 10 a.m. next Saturday (Nov. 8), with music from the Classic Swing Band beginning at 9:30. I don’t want to give any of the surprises, but I can promise this year’s event is one that you won’t want to miss.
This year’s event will wrap up shortly before noon with the wreath presentation and the Commemorative Air Force Fly-Over.
Once again this year, a World War II re-enactment battle by the World War II Living History Re-enactors will be held at the train depot on Rogers Street in downtown Waxahachie, with the battle getting underway around 3 p.m.
Having attending similar events around the world as both a military dependant and member of the military, this is one of the best ceremonies honoring veterans in the United States.
And it all began over a cup of coffee.
And now you know the story behind the story.