Five-year old Maya Patel of Arlington Heights jumped up and down after finishing a project Wednesday night at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. Together with her 7-year old brother, Liam, and father, Nick, they worked to decorate framed photos of their grandfather, Edward Hesslau, who served 32 years in the Air Force, and their uncle Austin Jacquin, who served six years in the Army.
The best part was hanging their “ornaments” on the seven-feet tall Veteran’s Tree, located on the main floor of the library. The young family was among the dozens of people who worked side by side decorating their veteran’s photo. The tree, created by the library’s graphics supervisor, Brian Benson, will remain up through November and already a second tree is on order, due to the response.
“It’s a great way to honor them and give the kids a sense of service,” Nick Patel said. “These veterans should be appreciated and recognized as heroes.”
Sitting at another table, Gold Star Mother Kaki Newgard of Arlington Heights decorated a photo of her son, PFC Will Newgard, who was killed in 2006 while serving in Iraq. While Newgard speaks frequently to military groups and local schools, seeing another generation learn about service touched her.
“I’m enjoying seeing the faces of these kids,” Newgard said. “It’s so precious hearing their families talk to them about patriotism and ways to support veterans.”
Ron Landsnes of Arlington Heights was one of the first to arrive. He decorated and hung a photo of himself in 1967 when he served in the Air Force. Though he never saw combat, Landsnes did serve in Guam and Germany, and he seemed moved at the library putting a public spotlight on veterans.
“It’s nice to recognize people who served,” Landsnes said, “and hopefully it will inspire others to serve.”
When Liz Bertruff of Arlington Heights saw the invitation to “decorate the Veteran’s Tree” in the monthly library brochure, she thought: “You know what, I’m going to do this.”
Her husband, Robert, is currently serving in the Army and is stationed at the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, AL, where he is testing missiles. To date, he has served 31 years in the Army.
“I wanted to honor him,” Liz Bertruff said, “and share his story.”
Library officials worked with SALUTE, Inc., the Palatine-based nonprofit celebrating its 20th anniversary. Last year, the library partnered with SALUTE to present “Portrait of a Soldier,” which showcased 300 Illinois military members who had died in service since 9/11. The Veteran’s Tree, which also is on display at the Ela Area Public Library in Lake Zurich, is different.
“The library is a public space where we can honor and showcase our veterans,” said Mary Beth Beiersdorf, SALUTE executive director. “It’s a public way for people to understand what service is all about.”
Library officials agreed, adding that the tree and its local portraits of veterans heightens awareness and builds community.
“There are so many veterans in our community that SALUTE and the American Legion support, but that people might not know about,” said Emily Muszynski, Programs & Exhibits Specialist for the library. “This allows families — and veterans themselves — to celebrate the veterans. We think it will draw lots of engagement and that’s what community is all about.”
A second chance to decorate a photo of a veteran and hang it on the tree will take place from 2- 4 p.m. Nov. 12. The event will include a patriotic performance by the Arlingtones and a reception. Read more about it and register, here.