SCHENECTADY — It was the words of Abraham Lincoln that echoed through the mind of retired Air Force Maj. Julia Holcomb as she watched the Vale Cemetery Memorial Day ceremony.
Holcomb is a member of the Vale Cemetery Association’s Board of Directors and a retired Schenectady High School teacher, where she taught U.S. history and social studies. She said Memorial Day is a good opportunity to teach young people about American history, and the role they have to play in America’s future.
“I think one thing educators have to do when it comes to Memorial Day is to recognize that, you know, freedom costs — that’s No. 1,” she said. “The men and women, who gave their lives, through all the wars, they need to be remembered for what they did.”
She recalled the conclusion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the 271 word speech given by the 16th president of the U.S. on Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., site of one of the bloodiest battles in American history, considered by some to be the turning point of the American Civil War.
In the speech, Lincoln incorrectly remarked that the world would not remember his words that day, but concluded his speech with a call to service that inspired Holcomb and many others — “That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Holcomb said Lincoln’s words explain the obligation of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead.
“Lincoln says, and I’m paraphrasing it, but ‘here these men died on this battlefield’, but for what? Did they just die in vain?” she said. “For all the men and women who gave up their lives for all of the different wars American has been involved in, was it for nothing? So, I think it is important that you do teach about Memorial Day, not only for those veterans who are living today — they’ll be gone — but we need to remember the work that they did, the ultimate sacrifice, so that we can remain a democracy and a republic.”
Memorial Day officially became a U.S. federal holiday in 1967, but was started as a tradition after the Civil War in 1868. Vale Cemetery is the final resting place for 94 people associated with the fighting of the Civil War, but has veterans of every U.S. military conflict since.
Approximately 50 people gathered at the Vale Cemetery ceremony Monday, and many of them traveled to the Veterans Park Memorial Day service conducted about an hour later. Many military veterans representing organizations like the Schenectady County Veterans, the American Legion, the Electric City Marine Corps. League and AMVETS Post 35 attended and participated in the ceremony, as did elected leaders like Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, City Council Majority Leader John Polimeni, and state Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Schenectady, among others.
Bob Becker, a retired U.S. Marine Corps. 1st Sgt., past National Commandant for the Marine Corps. League and acting president of the Schenectady County Veterans, served as the master of ceremonies for both events. Becker said the Memorial Day ceremony has been an annual tradition for as long as he can remember, but was sparsely attended last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is bigger than last year, because we did it with a skeleton crew, we usually have a guest speaker, but that’s hard because a lot of people still aren’t out of mask wearing yet,” he said.
With New York state’s COVID-19 mandates being relaxed for people who’ve been vaccinated, the outdoor Memorial Day ceremony had the look of a transitional event, with a few people still wearing masks, but most going without them.
Mayor McCarthy gave a speech at both ceremonies. He thanked the veterans organizations for their work in honoring all the Americans who’ve died serving their country. He also spoke about how difficult the past year has been in Schenectady and throughout the United States as the coronavirus pandemic killed nearly 600,000 people in the United States and Americans endured a period of unprecedented social strife and disruption.
“As we’re coming out of what was an extremely difficult year,” McCarthy said. “We went through things a lot of us, most of us, never thought we’d go through, but now we can bring some normalcy back to our lives and reflect on the the great values of this country — those things that the men and women in military service have provided the stability to enjoy, not only in this country but in other countries around the world.”
‘More than just a cemetery’
Vale Cemetery Association President Gordon Zuckerman, who served as an Army specialist E4 during the Vietnam War, said he isn’t certain how many veterans total are buried at the cemetery, but there are “hundreds and hundreds”, including two Congressional Medal of Honor winners. He said Memorial Day is the beginning of what he hopes will be a season of activity at the cemetery. He said Vale Cemetery hopes to resume its role in providing the opening ceremonies of Schenectady’s Juneteenth celebration on June 18 and resume its history-themed tours of the cemetery, which includes tours of graves associated with the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Great Women of the Vale.
There are also plans for two new tours, one about World War I and another about the Spanish Influenza of 1918.
Zuckerman said despite the many hardships of the coronavirus pandemic 2020 was a year for Vale Cemetery to shine, winning an American Cemetery & Cremation ACE award for American Cemetery Excellence.
“We won that because we’re more than a cemetery. We have the bike path, the arboretum, the urban farm and during the pandemic last summer, when there was beautiful weather on a Sunday, people could walk through here with their strollers, their babies — it was more than just a cemetery for them,” he said.