On April 29th, Philadelphia came together to honor my husband's uncle, Wild Bill Guarnere.
The Kimmel Center graciously hosted us. Several hundred people showed up to honor his memory with many being veterans, themselves.
Vince Papale was the emcee for the event. He didn't really know Uncle Billy well, so he asked my husband to write something for him to say as an intro for the event.
John was terribly anxious about it. I understood. I mean, he's spent his entire life loving and respecting Uncle Billy for so many things - how was he supposed to sum up his reverence for his iconic uncle for a brief blurb given by a guy he had no affinity for?
So he asked for my help, and I gladly went to work. I took John's great (if jumbled) ideas and created the opening message delivered by Papale. It was an odd feeling hearing my words spoken from the stage of the Kimmel Center. I was grateful that I could've played even a tiny role in paying honor to this man's life and legacy.
After the intros, we got a special treat (arranged by our family friend and work associate, Mike D). The Quaker City String Band came out and played a set in honor of Uncle Billy. Being from South Philly, Uncle Billy loved the string bands, especially when they were out in full costume for the Mummers Day Parade. Sweet Lord how the Guarnere family loves their Mummers Strut!
Anyway, they came out and played for us and the most adorable thing happened. After they played their opening tribute, they closed out with the Mummers March, complete with one of the band members doing the strut with a parasol. Don't ya know, Aunt Barbara (God bless her hilarious self) got up and began dancing the Mummers Strut in the middle of the aisle!!! I turned around and caught the scene with my phone as the guy onstage caught on and came down to dance with her. It made me laugh, and Lord knows everyone else was caught up in that momentary spot of joy. Here's the video. You might have to turn your speakers up to hear it:
It was glorious. I'm not one for the Mummers (mostly because I find parades to be incredibly cold, long and boring), but I can't help but delight in how much joy the Guarnere side of my family gets out of the tradition. Somehow, at every family event, someone busts out the Mummers Strut and everyone - I mean EVERYONE - hits the floor strutting. Ha ha ha!
After the string band, Dom Giordano came out to give a personal tribute. I was blown away by his speech. He'd interviewed Uncle Billy several times and spoke of how the entire city came together when a bureaucratic nightmare threatened to remove the handicap parking sign in front of his house. Within minutes, several hundred people had been amassed to hammer the sign back in place themselves. However, word quickly traveled to city council and new legislation was passed regarding handicap parking for veterans. Even at 90 years old, Uncle Billy was STILL effecting positive change for the veterans he cared so much about in the city he loved so dearly. What a tribute!
He then said that there are plans in the works to erect a statue in his honor overlooking S. Philadelphia where we can all see and feel his protective presence. That solicited a standing ovation. What love this city has for him! What comfort that is to my family. That being said, I think most of us would rather see such money raised used for wounded troops (as Uncle Billy, himself, often donated his money) instead of a statue, but such a thoughtful gesture is incredibly touching.
From there, Councilman David Oh and two of his colleagues presented our family with a City Council Resolution honoring Uncle Billy's life and legacy. Hearing them read that resolution was pretty amazing.
From there, we heard tributes from other folks who knew and loved Uncle Billy: Dale Dye, a highly decorated Vietnam vet who personally worked with Uncle Billy during the production of Band of Brothers, Justice Seamus P. McCaffery of the state of Pennsylvania, and letters from Admiral Joe Sestak and Tom Hanks, executive producer for Band of Brothers. Between these presentations were video clips from others who wanted to send their well wishes but were unable to be present. It was a truly moving set of tributes.
The thing that kept bringing me to tears was the notion of heroism. Speakers, time after time, mentioned that for Uncle Billy, heroism was only earned by laying your life down for your country. He didn't consider himself a hero. He considered all those fallen brothers left behind heroes. The rest of his life was spent honoring their memory and reminding others just how important their sacrifices were. Not his; never his. His beloved vets, though... he shepherded them time and again through legislative challenges, hospital stays, reunions and personal tragedy. He was their champion, and they loved him for it.
What an absolute honor it was to be beside them last night. Seeing them come out to hold flags, share "Wild Bill stories" or even just supporting his family as Uncle Billy so many times had supported theirs... these brave men and women were honored again by Uncle Billy's legacy. Even if death Uncle Billy managed to turn the spotlight away from himself and onto others. God bless him. God bless all our servicemen and women (active and retired).
At the end of the night, a final tribute was paid by my faither-in-law. His tribute was incredible. I only captured a clip of it here, but I'm glad I caught what I did:
Again, you might have to raise your volume a bit (after the applause). The sentiments were spot on, but what amused me was how much he reflected Uncle Billy in his mannerisms. He was feeding off the energy in the room and growing bigger and more charismatic as he went. He was jostling himself back and forth, becoming super animated. He was shuffling his head up and down for emphasis, and I turned to John at one point and said, "My God, he's just like Uncle Billy!"
When we got into the car that night, I said, "John, I caught video of your dad's speech, and it was great. All the things he was praising Uncle Billy for he's totally got going for himself. I dunno if he even realizes that!"
He probably doesn't. For as much of a character as Uncle Billy was with his humor, charism and charm, he was also deeply humble. To a certain extent, it seems like my FIL picked up that trait alongside the more flamboyant ones. *Grin*
Ah well. The entire memorial was well done. It was a fitting tribute for someone so iconic. I'm so glad I was blessed to attend. I'm so proud to be part of this family that has given of itself so much. We'd all do well to follow Uncle Billy's example. He was a great man. May we all strive after such selfless, humble heroism.
5/4/2014 07:37:58 am
Sounds like it was a wonderful experience. Mark and I have been watching Band of Brothers on demand on HBO. John's Uncle Billy is one of the soldiers featured. My mom's family has South Philly roots, and love those mummers too. They usually have them at family weddings.
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