By Mac Cerullo
---- — Efforts to refurbish Amesbury’s 18 long-neglected war memorials have gained momentum in recent months, and now a group of residents is looking to start a full-on community fundraiser to give the memorials the care they need.
Francis Justin of 10 Trues Circle and Rosemary Werner, the director of Best Foot Forward, have begun soliciting interest from local veterans and residents, and Werner said there is a meeting planned at the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank Community Room in Amesbury on April 25 at 7 p.m. to discuss the fundraising plan and gauge interest in the community.
“We’re waiting until the end of April to see who is going to be the chairman of it,” Werner said. “If anyone is interested in joining this committee to volunteer, they’re welcome to come to this meeting.”
The idea behind the fundraiser is to duplicate the efforts that led to the construction of the Doughboy statue in front of the Amesbury Middle School. The Doughboy was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1929, to honor the memory of Amesbury’s World War I veterans, and it was funded entirely by private donations.
“We want to put the money into the Newburyport Five bank so people can walk into the bank and make deposits; we don’t want to keep the money at City Hall,” Werner said. “We want to combine our volunteers with the veterans and say it’s the Veterans Restoration Memorial Fund. That way it encompasses each of the 18 memorials that need work.”
Justin, who is now 90, is one of the few Amesbury residents still living who attended the dedication of the Doughboy. Her father was among the many local residents who fought in World War I, and she estimated that 25,000 people attended the statue’s dedication.
But today the Doughboy, like most of the other war memorials in Amesbury, has begun to deteriorate.
Amesbury does have an official group dedicated to the upkeep of local war memorials known as the Amesbury Trustees of War Memorials. Mayor Thatcher Kezer said the five-member committee is active and has met recently, but he acknowledged that very little has been done to maintain the war memorials in the past few years.
“Mainly because of the economic crisis,” Kezer said. “It’s been batten down the hatches to maintain core services.”
Now that the economy is beginning to improve and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down, Justin said she hopes there will be interest among returning veterans and local residents to refocus their efforts on honoring the city’s veterans, both young and old.
“My father had worked hard for it,” Justin said. “And to see it like it is, I feel bad about it.”
Justin comes from a family with an extensive military history, and as a result she has a unique appreciation for the sacrifice all veterans make. Beyond her father, her husband and brother also both fought in World War II, she had two sons who fought in the Korean War and her godson, William Justin, was among those killed in the Forrestal disaster during the Vietnam War.
If you go even further back, you’d find that one of Justin’s ancestors fought against the British during the American Revolution, and today, she has a great-grandson who is set to join the Navy right out of school.
“Veterans to me mean a lot, and I don’t think they should be neglected and put aside,” Justin said. “We want to make something of these memorials that have been put up in Amesbury.”
Originally Justin wanted to help raise money just for the Doughboy, but as time went on she became aware of the city’s other lesser-known war memorials and wanted to help get those fixed up too.
In order for that to happen, the group will need to start with some seed money, and Kezer is looking to help provide that through a proposal to allocate $25,000 of the city’s free cash funds toward fixing up the memorials.
The proposal was before the City Council’s Finance Committee on Tuesday, and Justin blew the roof off City Hall with an impassioned speech urging the councilors to endorse the proposal.
“We have got some beautiful monuments ready and able to be fixed up, and made so they could be an inspiration,” Justin said at the start of her speech. “We’ve got to get some patriotism back in our country, and I think we can start with Amesbury.”
Her speech prompting a loud ovation and drew support from even the most fiscally conservative members of the audience during public comment. The Finance Committee ended up endorsing the plan 8-1, sending it to the City Council for final approval on April 9.
But while that’s a great start, Justin still hopes most of the money can be raised through the community and that a younger veteran with more energy will be willing to step forward to make that happen.
For her part, Werner said that while she is willing to help, she agrees that a veteran should be the one to step up and lead the effort. Anyone who is interested should attend the meeting on April 27, and any questions about the meeting in the meantime can be directed to Werner at 978-388-4863.