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Kentucky by Heart: Tiny Wickliffe community has a lot of ‘Hart’ and many treasured souls

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Wickliffe, Kentucky, sets along the Mississippi River, a couple miles from where the Ohio River flows into “Father of the Waters.” The town is a part of the Jackson Purchase region in the westernmost part of the state. According to the 2010 United States Census Bureau, the Ballard County place has 688 residents and a total area of 1.2 miles.

From my perspective, it’s pretty close to being the most distant point from my home in Lexington to still be located in Kentucky.

But think twice before you look down on the town for its smallness or its lack of serious influence. The community has a lot of heart, or perhaps more accurately, it has Hart… Sandy Hart. And that fact, along with the many other amazing people and the historical importance of the Wickliffe area, helped me to experience a wholly memorable day recently. I saw old friends, met new ones and enjoyed a parade and celebration of American military veterans. It gave the term “community” an enhanced meaning for this lucky guy.

Sandy Hart, left, with husband Ray enjoy the ‘Thank a Veteran Anniversary Celebration’ in the Western Kentucky community of Wickliffe. (Photo provided)

My five-hour drive to Wickliffe, including an overnight stay an hour away in Grand Rivers, was well worth the time I set aside on my schedule after Sandy invited me to be there, months ago, for what she billed the “Thank a Veteran Anniversary Celebration.”

Sandy, age 69, is the subject of a story in my Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes book series. Back in 2004, she organized a 17-bus convoy of over 800 persons, mostly U.S. military veterans, to make the trek to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial. She also founded the Kentucky Veteran and Patriot Museum in Wickliffe, a place of tribute and public education about American troops and, for many veterans, a place of solace after serving their country and often feeling underappreciated after doing so. She is married to a former Marine who has served more recently as a minister and missionary in India.

Those three bookmarks explain the “anniversary” part of the celebration: the 11th anniversary for the WWII Memorial trip, the third for the establishment of the KVPM, and the 50th for the number of years Sandy and Ray Hart have been married.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

I was honored to be asked by Sandy to be a part of the worthy proceedings.

So, after a nice evening stay at Patti’s Inn and Suites, along with a great meal at the Patti’s Settlement Restaurant, I drove to the Ballard County town and met up at 9 a.m. with 150 or so eager parade participants at the downtown park in Wickliffe. The ages of the parade party ranged from toddler to those around 90, a good generational mix. The plan was to begin the parade at 10:00 and move through Wickliffe with trucks pulling wagons, motorcycles roaring and a speaker blasting out patriotic music. Signs, balloons, and decaled vehicles would give tribute to America’s military veterans. Our smiles would show we were glad to be part of it.

Thanks, especially to Sandy Hart, events like these in Wickliffe, are quite commonplace.

Before the parade began, Earl Gidcumb, 89, recognized me. We’ve become friends through my association with Sandy and the book that included her. Earl played taps at the WW II Memorial in 2004, and I’ve enjoyed the music he sent me of his “Big Band” group he led almost 50 years ago. I mentioned to Earl I’d stayed at Patti’s Inn in Grand Rivers the night before.

“Well, if I’d known that you could have stayed with me here in Wickliffe,” he said. “I’m batchin’ it these days.”

What Earl meant was that his wife was now living in a nursing home a good distance away. Visiting her now is an every few weeks kind of regularity. Everybody fully aware of the kind gentleman knows that he acted as a faithful caregiver for his wife for many years at their home. Most also know Earl served on the USS Indianapolis in WW II, though he fortunately was not aboard when the ship was torpedoed by Japanese fire and sank to the ocean’s bottom.

For sure, Earl Gidcumb is a bona fide quality human being. He’s a friend I wish I’d picked up many years sooner.

I also met up and had good words with another friend, Jim Vance, a Vietnam vet full of action stories and possessing a productive work resume after his military service. Jim, like Earl, is also a good man, and, he too has supported wholeheartedly the work of the local veteran museum.

I wouldn’t have crossed paths with these special guys without first knowing Sandy Hart.

Earl Gidcumb (Photo provided)

I was also happy to see and kid around with Bonnie Bruner, one of Sandy’s daughters. She is included in my next book about everyday heroes in Kentucky. Bonnie, along with husband Kern, adopted seven children with various medical issues. She fits the bill of a Hart family member, to be truly a giving person.

The parade got moving several minutes after 10, but only because Sandy and other invested ones wanted to make sure we were good and ready to do our best. It was a given that we needed to do our level best for the veterans we were honoring and for the local parade watchers also.

I sat on a straw bale on a long farm wagon that led the parade. Another dozen or so on the wagon, giggling and sharing things about daily living, were pulled by a patriotically decorated pickup truck. We were followed by the same, along with a ’52 Army jeep, rescued from its junked condition and then restored after a relentless search for parts by a talented mechanic who wanted to help the cause. At the back of the line were a whole passel of motorcycles with riders sporting positive troop messages.

It was a motley crew, but it was a proud one.

A goodly number–not hundreds, but dozens—of town folks waved at us on the first street we navigated. They seemed surprised but excited when toddlers on board threw wrapped hard candy out on the streets. Our music sound system spurted and hesitated at times, but the effort was nonetheless appreciated. As we made the first right turn, the old jeep decided to act mulish and quit moving its wheels on the street. That momentarily brought the parade to a stop, but the cavalcade soon got going again.

It was all good…our Thank a Vet parade was proving a blessing on this beautiful Saturday morning.

Edgar Harrell, left, with author Steve Flairty (Photo provided)

A few more turns, with fewer spectators, and we pulled into the Wickliffe Riverfront Pavilion, the place where food would be served, words would be spoken, and the good things about a loving community would be on display. Almost as a metaphor, the Father of Waters had our back.

A guy from Lexington who had driven about five hours to attend exhibited a trace of moistened eyes.

It was a bright, sunny day–and hot, especially for early May. But some in the crowd had served time in jungles, and that’s even hotter. Thank you, our American military veterans.

At the gathering, Sandy introduced me to 91-year-old Edgar Harrell. He, alone, was worth the trip. Edgar, 91, was a Marine who survived the tragic sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945, the last year of World War II. As a speaker, he tells his story all around the country. He also is the author of a riveting account of the experience in his book, Out of the Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival, Courage and the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis (Bethany House Publishers, 2014).

Helped by the fact that my father served in the Marines, Edgar and I had a great conversation and talked about our writing and speaking activities. I met his grandson and great-grandson. He spoke to the crowd with an engaging and well-enunciated voice, and I took careful mental notes as well as taping his speech.

In truth, some people are really lucky for the treasured souls they meet in life, and I’m included in that circle of rich fortune.

And it was just that kind of weekend in the westernmost part of the state, truly in the mode of Kentucky by Heart… or, perhaps more accurately, Kentucky by Hart.

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared at NKyTribune May 19, 2015.

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