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Sherman Says: Remember our heritage; look to the future

BUFFALO — When I hear the “The Star-Spangled Banner” performed in the same room where the actual star-spangled banner is on display, I get chills.

That is also how I felt when I first heard about OpSail 2012 and its offshoot, Buffalo Navy Week. The announcement was made June 2011 in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History. The secretary of the Navy was in attendance, as well as Western New York civic leaders.

The stops along OpSail 2012 – New Orleans, Baltimore and Boston – were events staged on a scale larger than Buffalo’s shallow, inland harbor could accommodate. Yet, attending Buffalo Navy Week events was like going to the Olympics. Each day offered something new.

The multifaceted program was built around the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the bicentennial of Francis Scott Key’s penning the national anthem.

It was a perfect opportunity to educate Americans on how a nation that had no formal navy went on to defeat Great Britain in the waters of the Atlantic and Lake Erie. The modern, sophisticated warships tied up at Canalside and in Lackawanna last week offered silent testimony to our naval superiority.

Sure, it was a recruitment drive, as well, with sailors in crisp uniforms’ drawing attention everywhere they went. There were community service projects, concerts and demonstrations of antique weapons. How fortunate Buffalo was to land a week of such energy and pride!

But there were solemn moments, too. Speakers reminded guests to remember our service men and women serving around the world and safeguarding our freedom. There was mention of Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham of Scio, N.Y., who died April 22, 2004, of wounds sustained in Iraqi combat. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and a Navy destroyer was named in his honor.

At the first of three ceremonies honoring those who served in the past, Capt. Bruce Boyle made the connection between the hundreds of Americans buried in the Garrison Cemetery in Cheektowaga and the young men and women deployed today. Ironically, British soldiers who died for their country are buried anonymously in the same graveyard.

Forest Lawn Cemetery was the site of an event honoring Commodore Stephen Champlin, a sailor who served in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, then returned to his adopted hometown of Buffalo. His descendants still live here.

A small group assembled Saturday afternoon at Front Park on Buffalo’s West Side to pay tribute to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. You have probably seen his statue as you have driven from Porter Avenue to the Peace Bridge. I am embarrassed to admit it was the first time I visited the site. One man I spoke to had been there several times. Ollie Hazard of Ellicottville is a descendant of the man known as “The hero of the Battle of Lake Erie.”

It’s easy to see our region’s connection to both the Navy and the War of 1812.

I hope that the opportunity to tour the ships and experience the exhibits at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park will inspire added pride in our country and open people’s eyes to the excitement of the growing Canalside district. It was a significant step in a new day’s dawning for downtown.

Out of all the handshakes, photo opportunities, conversations and camaraderie, one moment remains at the forefront of my Navy Week memories.

“Taps” was played by Navy musician Kristen Brawner, to close the observance at the shady Garrison Cemetery along Ellicott Creek. Suddenly, from the ranks of the sailors forming a backdrop for the high command, came the singing of the Navy Hymn: “Oh hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.”

David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. The author can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.
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