|The magazine of University of Houston-Clear Lake
spring 2010 | volume 16 | number 2
Batman, Superman and Captain America may have been created for children to admire, but Office of University Advancement Executive Secretary Cheryl Rohde and Associate Professor of Legal Studies Jim Benson would prefer it if they looked up to the real superheroes – veterans. In fact, Rohde and Benson share such a passion for veterans that they have exhibited true superpowers by growing the annual UHCL Veterans Day Celebration from a small event to a supersized one that has not only resulted in the creation of a park on the campus, but also a scholarship endowment.
Sponsored by the Office of Alumni and Community Relations and supported by area businesses, organizations and volunteers, the UHCL Veterans Day Celebration is on its way to becoming one of the university’s signature events, increasing every year in attendance, speakers and exhibits. Started in 2003 with a small ceremony in front of the Bayou Building, the event really began to gain momentum when Rohde took the reins in 2006 and paired up with Benson.
“With the help of Dr. Jim Benson and volunteers from the university, we had a wonderful event in 2006 with about 100 attendees” says Rohde. “Since then it has grown each year in both the program and the number of attendees. This year we can easily expect between 500 and 600 attendees, since that number will include 130 fourth-grade students from Teague Elementary in Pasadena, their teachers, parents and grandparents and drivers.”
Heartfelt expressions of gratitude from people of all ages highlight the event, which is held every year at the 11th hour on Nov. 11, giving attendees a chance to pay tribute to those who serve and the families who help make that service possible.
“This is the first time, the only time, I’ve ever received thanks,” said Army veteran Oscar Cessac during the 2009 celebration. Cessac spent two years in Vietnam and was thanked for his service by his sister-in-law, Office of the Provost Executive Assistant Joanne Laborde, during an open forum in which audience members take turns expressing their gratitude for family members and friends who served, or are currently serving, in the armed forces. Several audience members stopped to personally thank Cessac and shake his hand as the event drew to a close.
Also in attendance at the 2009 event were uniformed men and women representing every branch of the U.S. military. The Pledge of Allegiance led by Ross S. Sterling High School Jr. Marine ROTC was followed by an Apache helicopter flyover by the Texas Army National Guard. The ringing of the Veterans Bell and moments of silence punctuated speeches and music, which included the National Anthem, the Navy Hymn and “Amazing Grace” played by bagpiper Stanley Fontenot.
The audience also heard remarks from Army veteran and UHCL President William A. Staples, Associate Vice President for University Advancement Dion McInnis, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Steve Waldner and the keynote speaker, Walter Cunningham, an astronaut and retired U.S. Marine Corps veteran.
Cunningham’s address, titled “The Call to Serve: A Veteran’s Perspective,” praised the dedication of veterans past and present. “America was founded by risk-takers,” Cunningham said during his address. “Freedom still demands that we be willing to sacrifice — freedom isn’t free.”
Rohde says the Veterans Day activities are a result of UHCL’s community-minded philosophy.
“Many veterans and current military are in this particular community because of NASA and its contractors, and the Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base. Some are now students at UHCL,” she says. “I think the UHCL Veterans Day Celebration offers everyone in the community a place to gather and celebrate those who have served our country in the military. It is a celebration, not a memorial, of the way of life we are able to sustain because of the bravery of our military men and women.”
Benson, a Vietnam veteran, and Esther Anderson, an alumna of UHCL and 2003 president of the UHCL Alumni Association, first suggested and supported the idea of hosting a Veterans Day Celebration at UHCL. As business partners, they used their combined staff and resources to work with the staff of the Office of Alumni and Community Relations to collaboratively create the first celebration in 2003.
“My commitment has been to make sure we keep our veterans right in front of us, on our minds and honor them for what they’ve done,” says Benson. “A lot of the Vietnam era veterans have never been welcomed home or thanked for what they did.”
As preparations were being made for that first event, Benson and Anderson inquired about having a permanent location on campus to host the event and to honor veterans. Working with the Office of University Advancement, the concept and philosophy of Liberty Park was developed, approved and created.
Located on the north side of the Student Services and Classroom Building and flanked by a wooded area on the university’s campus, Liberty Park offers a quiet place for reflections on freedom among the foliage, flags and a pond. The park has gradually taken shape with the installation of flag poles, trees, park benches and the pond since the concept was first announced at the 2003 celebration.
“The park’s ongoing development represents the tireless efforts and contributions of veterans and non-veterans alike. It symbolizes the belief that it is important to have a place for individuals, families and groups to gather and reflect on the liberties of our society, and the sacrifices of all who made those liberties possible,” says Dion McInnis, the university’s associate vice president for university advancement.
A Service Flag is flown over the park each Veterans Day, and another is displayed at all times in the Office of University Advancement, in honor and recognition of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces.
When funds for a park gazebo to honor the families of veterans and active duty personnel were needed, Benson once again delved into his personal contacts to ask for their support. In 2009, during the seventh annual UHCL Veterans Day Celebration, the new gazebo was unveiled, thanks in large part to the fundraising efforts of Benson. Paul Bruder, UHCL associate professor emeritus of healthcare administration, wrote and read a dedication giving the gazebo to the families of veterans and of those currently serving in the military to recognize their “silent service to our nation” and “the daily sacrifices they make in support of our troops …”
Benson’s work to provide a gazebo for Liberty Park is only the most recent contribution he’s made on behalf of veterans at UHCL. Inspired by veterans’ noble service to our nation, Benson and other advocates for veterans, were instrumental in helping UHCL Librarian Frances Roppolo and her husband, Glynn, a veteran, establish the UHCL Veterans Scholarship Endowment in 2007 to support active or reserve-duty personnel or honorably discharged veterans. The Roppolos have also dedicated countless hours in previous years to collect, display and return memorabilia for an indoor exhibition of artifacts and other treasured pieces of history donated by local families of veterans.
Benson, who received the 2010 President’s Cabinet Leadership Award for his endeavors on behalf of veterans at UHCL, speculates on the catalyst effect UHCL’s veterans projects have had on the community.
“With the outpouring of emotions and support expressed by so many, perhaps the community simply needed a place to go,” says Benson.
And, UHCL welcomes them.
|Home | Archives | Contact Us | Staff | UHCL Alumni Association Online | UHCL Home|
Maintained By: Office of Communications
© 2010 University of Houston-Clear Lake, 2700 Bay Area Blvd., Houston, TX 77058