What an Honor to Participate in Fort Smith's Christmas Honors

Photo Courtesy of TheCityWire.com

Lisa McCubbin and Clint Hill, a former Secret Service agent who once watched over the Kennedy family, watch as the wreaths are placed on the graves.

Clint Hill and I have traveled extensively this past year, and here is what I have learned — nothing beats the hospitality and sincerity of small town America.  Our last three stops have been in Minot, North Dakota; Steubenville, Ohio: and finally, on December 6, we touched down in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  The warmth and heart of the people we have met in these small cities has been a wonderful reminder of what makes America great.

In Fort Smith, Arkansas, one man–aptly named Philip Merry–has created a phenomenon that should be spread around the country.  Actually, I have little doubt that if Mr. Merry puts his mind to it, this is exactly what will happen.  A passionate patriot, Philip Merry has devoted his time and energy to honoring military veterans at Christmastime. It all started five years ago with Merry’s idea to place red-ribboned wreaths at the graves in Fort Smith’s National Veterans Cemetery to honor those have died for our freedom.  But there are 14,000 gravestones at this national cemetery– and that is a lot of wreaths.

Mr. Merry was determined to place a wreath on each and every headstone–including the thousands of Unknowns that are interred there.  He convinced WalMart corporation to sell the wreaths half price, and then another company stepped in and offered to store the wreaths at no cost.  The community came together to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars–and the majority of donations were checks less than $50. “That’s what I’m most proud of,” says Merry.  “The community really embraced this project.”

So, on Friday, December 6, Clint Hill and I were the keynote speakers at the Fort Smith Convention Center.  Nearly 1000 people came to spend their Friday evening with us, and as usual, when Mr. Hill spoke, you could hear a pin drop.  There were people of all ages in attendance, but what was most inspiring was to see the large numbers of students in the audience, who had come to learn about history from a first-hand source.  Okay, I’m pretty sure they got extra credit for attending, but when many of them waited in line for over an hour afterward just to shake Mr. Hill’s hand and get their photo taken with him, you could see that his story–and the way we present it with about 80 slides and videos–had made an impact.  One person came up to me and said, “I really thought this might be kind of dry,” she said, “but it was so funny, and suspenseful, and inspiring–all in one. I was mesmerized!”

It was a great evening, and we topped it off with a group of the organizers at a fabulous restaurant called Doe’s.  Truly, one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.  My uncle Wesley, who drove from Heber Springs, AR to attend the event, and by the way, grew up on a ranch eating beef at least twice a day, said “Hands down. Best steak I’ve ever eaten.” If you go to Fort Smith, you must go to Doe’s!

But the biggest surprise, and the most humbling experience of all came the next morning.  It seemed like the whole town congregated at the cemetery.  There were Christmas songs in the pavillion by the local Catholic elementary school chorus, presentation of the colors by military honor guard, and an introduction by U.S. Senator John Boozman.  Then, at exactly 9:30 am, Philip Merry stepped up to the microphone and said, “Let’s transform this cemetery!”  And with that, people scattered to pick up the wreaths that had been placed along the paths, and place them, one by one, on each gravestone.  There were soldiers in uniform, boy scouts and girl scouts, grandparents with grandchildren, mothers, fathers, and loved ones of those who have been laid to rest in this beautiful spot.

It took just six minutes and thirty-nine seconds to lay 14,000 wreaths.  Six minutes and thirty-nine seconds!  It was amazing. It was so moving, so emotional, I couldn’t hold back my tears.

At 11:00 am, there was a small ceremony, some tear jerking patriotic songs sung by the school children, and a special speech by Clint Hill.  Sitting in front of the audience, tears streamed down my face as Clint spoke about November 25, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy, a Navy veteran, was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. People nodded, tears flowing, as Clint remembered John, Jr. saluting his father, the slain Commander in Chief, on what was John’s third birthday.

As we looked around at the newly decorated cemetery — each gravestone with a Christmas wreath –it was an awesome sight.  One man’s idea that brings a community together each year to pay tribute to our veterans and to let  the families know their loved ones did not die in vain.  Truly, one of the most moving events I’ve ever attended.  Bravo, Philip Merry.  You are an unsung hero.

Merry Christmas, and may the peace of the holiday season be with you and your family.

For information on how to book Clint Hill with Lisa McCubbin for your next event, visit PremiereSpeakers.com/Clint_Hill.

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