Ceremony Honors All Veterans
(HUNTSVILLE, TX) The HEARTS Veterans Museum of Texas Grand Opening Ceremony Wednesday was marked by much emotion, with about 700 veterans and dignitaries gathering to celebrate both the opening of the museum and Veterans Day — honoring those past and present who have served their country.
Master of ceremonies retired Marine Col. Dennis Beal, who also served as the HEARTS Museum fundraising chairman, opened the event by sharing a brief history of Veterans Day.
The national holiday was originally known as Armistice Day, which marked the day that ended World War I — Nov. 11, 1918. It was made an official legal holiday by Congress in 1938.
But the idea to expand the holiday to “all veterans day” came from an Emporia, Kan., shop owner, Al King, in 1953.
Backed by the local chamber of commerce, King’s idea eventually led to a nationwide movement and to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1954 signing of the bill designating Nov. 11 as Veterans Day.
Several guest speakers marked Wednesday’s event, including Sonja Perez of AT&T Richie Harris, chairman of the HEARTS Museum Executive Board; and Charlotte Oleinik, co-founder of the museum as well as its current director of special events.
“During World War II, 16.5 million soldier served in our Armed Forces; 407,000 of those died,” Harris said. “This museum is for all veterans of all the wars.
“The museum started in 1993 as a store front display and has come a long way since that time,” he said. “The journey has been long and tedious but it has been a really good journey.
“It has got the markings of a great museum — it is a living museum, for all veterans, and it is right here in Huntsville.”
When Oleinik took the stage, she was immediately drawn to tears when speaking of how her dream of a veterans museum in Huntsville came true.
“It was on this day 16 years ago that something profound happened to me,” Oleinik said. “I met a wonderful group of people called veterans, and the museum idea began to take shape.
“This is a once in a lifetime acquisition, without God in my life and my family by my side, things would be so different,” she said. “Everyone worked tirelessly and diligently, all believing with me in my vision for an up close and personal museum.
“No one ever lost sight of that. Dreams really do come true.”
Both Harris and Oleinik gave much thanks to state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, who helped obtain the five-acre conference center and museum site, and garnered over $2 million to fund the museum’s construction.
“I told her I needed her help and she immediately started to work on getting the land,” Oleinik said, turning her comments to Kolkhorst. “I will never be able to thank you for what you have done.”
After a tear-filled hug between the two women, Kolkhorst presented an eagle to Oleinik in honor of her hard work in making the museum a reality.
“It truly has been a journey, and I have truly received more credit than I am due,” Kolkhorst said. “I want to thank all of you who are here to mark this special day for Huntsville and for Texas.”
In the midst of her work for the museum, the state representative was approached by legislators about what she wanted. And for Kolkhorst, the answer was a simple one.
“The one thing I wanted most was to see this museum built for all of you,” Kolkhorst said. “And now, we are here today to celebrate the opening of the museum — a place for veterans to visit and remember and for all Americans to visit and reclaim the spirit of patriotism.
“We all need this place to take us out of our comfort zones — a place to remember things,” she continued. “To remember the smoky air and the blast of a grenade; and most importantly to remember how blessed we truly are.
“This is a thank you gift to them — to those who fought, to families members of soldiers and to those gold star moms who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“Thank you all so much.”
Special veterans in attendance were recognized Wednesday, including retired Army Lt. Col. M.B. Etheredge, the most decorated living American veteran, and Virgil LaRue, a survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March.
Proclamations were presented by City of Huntsville Mayor J. Turner and Walker County Judge Danny Pierce; with messages from Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Congressman Kevin Brady and Governor Rick Perry read during the ceremony.
To conclude the ceremony, a commemorative flag-raising ceremony was conducted by the American Legion Post No. 95 and American Legion Riders, followed by a ribbon cutting at the museum entrance.
Veterans Day events were wrapped up Wednesday evening with the annual Veterans Day Dinner, also held at the Veterans Conference Center and sponsored by the HEARTS Veterans Museum.
The event, attended by over 500 people, included several musical guests, a silent auction and presentations of the Eagle Award, given to those who have gone “above and beyond the call of duty” in service to veterans and the museum.
This year’s awards were presented by Oleinik to museum volunteers Sam and Marie Martinez; and to HEARTS Museum Board Chairman Richie Harris.
The annual dinner and auction serves as a fundraiser for the museum and for the Martinez Scholarship, which funds two $500 scholarships for Sam Houston State University ROTC students.