SLIDESHOW: We remember —Darien honors its veterans on Memorial Day
Darien held a scaled down version of its normal Memorial Day parade and ceremonies on Monday, May 25.
Organizers made the difficult decision to cancel the event earlier this month. This weekend, the parade committee announced it would hold a small, socially distant ceremony at Veterans Cemetery on Hecker Avenue, across from the Darien Police Department, where it usually occurs. DAF Media broadcasted the ceremony and residents were encouraged to watch from home.
Grand Marshal Allan Bixler (read more about him here) was escorted from Darien VFW #6933 by an honor guard to the cemetery. The VFW is the former chapel of the Fitch Home for Soldiers.
The Fitch Home for Soldiers and their Orphans was established by Benjamin Fitch, one of Darien’s more dynamic citizens. Prior to the Civil War, this wealthy bachelor had left Darien for New York only to return several years later as a dry goods magnate and one of America’s first millionaires. At the age of 51 he retired and devoted his life to philanthropy.
Fitch, being too old to fight in the Civil War, helped organize a Regiment from this area. Fitch promised to care for the families of soldiers in this and other Regiments. This concern led to the establishment of the Fitch Home for Soldiers and their Orphans in 1864. Benjamin Fitch donated the original five acres and $100,000 for the construction of the Home. Shortly thereafter, four two-story buildings were erected on five acres, and the Home was dedicated on July 4, 1864 by the renowned Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. Benjamin Fitch’s Home also received the support of General Grant and President Andrew Johnson.
Fitch died in 1883 at the age of 81 and is buried in the Fitch vault beneath St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. In his Last Will and Testament, Fitch left an additional $14,500 to the Home. By 1888, the State assumed responsibility for operating the Fitch Home, and the Soldier’s Hospital Board took over the management of the Home.
Anyone living near the Soldiers Home would hear reveille in the morning and taps in the evening. One would also never forget the drum-beat of the long roll when an old soldier died. Taps would be played as the remains passed through the big gates.
Many Darien residents recall that between World War I and World War II, the Commandant of the Home gave an address on Memorial Day. Several hundred veterans would march from the Fitch Home down Noroton Avenue to the Spring Grove Cemetery. The soldiers march wearing their Civil War blue uniforms with black hats, or the younger veterans in their Khaki uniforms, rank after rank of them, all very somber and thoughtful. The disabled veterans came in buses. The spirit of Memorial Day was never stronger in Darien. Here were hundreds of veterans marching to pay their respects to fellow veterans. There are over 2,000 soldiers buried at Spring Grove Cemetery.
In the Memorial Day Parade, the veterans were followed by the American Legion, Ernest F. Sexton Post 51, then by Boy Scouts, the Umberto Society and service clubs such as the Kiwanis Club. Darien’s three volunteer fire departments would bring up the rear along with the Fitch Home ambulance. The Grand Marshal and his guests would review the parade at the Noroton Heights Fire House, then located on Linden Avenue. Read more about the history at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ website at https://portal.ct.gov/DVA/About-Us.
Parade committee chairman Terry Gaffney thanked all those that made the ceremony possible and said that social distancing had limited those able to speak. He said those speaking were down to five and would be “pinch hitting” for those unable to be there. Gaffney thanked members of the Monuments & Ceremonies Commission, the Darien VFW, the Darien Boy Scouts who placed flags on the graves, the Darien Girl Scouts for doing a virtual Gettysburg Address, DAF Media, the Darien Foundation, the Darien Library, and Darien Police.
Gaffney also thanked the Board of Selectmen and First Selectman Jayme Stevenson for their encouragement in making the event possible.
In his opening prayer, Gaffney said the town should remember those who lost their lives on the front lines.
“Look after them, we ask, and reward them for their sacrifice. Let’s not forget why they did it. They did it for us. Hopefully we will continue to honor their memory and appreciate the blessing of freedom they helped secure for us, ” he said.
Grand Marshal Allan Bixler read a letter from his son, Cory. Bixler said it was tribute to his great-grandfather, his grandfather and himself. Cory recounted a gripping story he had been told by his grandfather of training a new soldier who was shot right before his eyes.
“Today we have it easy,” Bixler read. “We have freedom to vote for whoever we want and can yell and protest about anything.”
Cory wrote he gives a big thanks to his father, grandfather and great-grandfather because he lives in the best country in the world “because of people like them.”
To his father, Cory especially sent a message of thanks in the letter.
“You served in Vietnam and you are still crushing it. Thank you for everything. You are a patriot and a great man. You and your buddies did not get the respect you deserved when you came home but now you finally are. I am honored to be a part of this family of patriots and heroes who put their lives on the line,” Cory wrote.
Filling in in person for the Darien Girl Scouts in reading the Gettysburg Address was speaker Captain Sueann Schorr, U.S. Naval Reserves and a Girl Scout leader in Darien.
Eagle Scout Maximus Racanelli read a speech from Gen. John A. Logan, known as the founder of Memorial Day.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson read aloud the names of all of Darien’s Roll of Honor, those who lost their lives in service, beginning with the Civil War. Grand Marshal Allan Bixler rang a bell in their honor.
Speaker Sueann Schorr, a 25-year Navy reserve sailor, then gave a speech about the meaning of Memorial Day and how Memorial Day looks different this year for all. She also shared encouragement that had been circulated internally from Navy personnel.
Darien High School graduate Dominick Wood then played Taps.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, “pinch hitting” for clergy, then offered a benediction.
“Grant that we may appreciate and treasure the gift that is our freedom and our heritage and that we may never forget the great price at which it was purchased for all of us,” she said.
Stevenson also prayed for those on the front lines of the pandemic, including medical personnel, first responders and essential workers.
In closing, Gaffney asked that those visiting the cemetery look around at those buried there.
“There are people buried from many, many wars, from many many nations. Some of them have fought in wars that we are all familiar with, some in wars that some of us don’t even know about —the Phillipine Insurrection, Mexican border incursion, the Boxer Rebellion,” he said.
Gaffney also pointed out that the cemetery was the first to be “completely integrated.”
“Blacks and whites were buried here 140 years ago,” he said.
“There is a lot to be learned here in this cemetery, I would encourage you to take a look around,” he said.