Bedford’s Memorial Day Template Embraces the Generations

May 30, 2023
Joe Piantedosi was the Grand Marshall of this year’s Memorial Day parade and ceremonies in Bedford. Staff photo by Wayne Braverman

Bedford knows how to do Memorial Day.

The town is steeped in the heritage of resistance to the Crown; schools and streets are named to honor colonial Minutemen and militia. A Veterans Administration medical center opened on the north side of town 95 years ago; an Air Force Base settled on the south extremity during World War II.

That legacy has guided Memorial Day observances for decades, and Monday continued the tradition of ceremonies at four war memorials and three other significant locations.

The three-and-a-half-hour experience is a familiar template, but each year there are new personalities, roles, and research.

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A resident central to Memorial Day in Bedford for many years, former Selectman Joe Piantedosi, was selected by fellow Patriotic Holiday Committee members as grand marshal for 2023, and that meant a ride in a convertible but didn’t compromise his usual level of involvement.

Korean and Vietnam Conflicts Memorial

A few dozen participants and spectators began the day on Monday at 8:30 a.m. at the marker outside American Legion Post 221 at 357 The Great Road. Sgt. Brian Bills, post chaplain, gave the first of the day’s six opening prayers. Boy Scouts placed a wreath and after rifle volleys, Bedford High School students Evan Karen and Alex Mattson played “Taps.”

For the first time in their years of participation, the musicians played the song antiphonally rather than sequentially when the second bugler repeated the entire song. The revised version, popular at some military colleges, is more complicated and involved some pre-event practice sessions. Karen, a senior, said, “I always wanted to do this before graduation.”

The rifle squad of John Pecora and John Mikkelsen preceded “Taps” with honorary volleys, the first of five firings.

Civil War Memorial

Piantedosi presided in front of the granite monument in Shawsheen Cemetery, which was a gift of the Ladies Aid Society in 1874. Rob Bowes, commander of the Legion post, offered a message of unity.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican. It doesn’t matter what religion you choose,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what your sexuality or race. They lost their lives so you could be who you want to be and believe in what you want. We have to relearn to unite and compromise.”

Bowes added that those who died “did not give the ultimate sacrificed for us to remain a nation divided.”

Don Corey, former elected official and historian par excellence of Bedford’s Civil War period, spoke of the Stearns Family, starting with the Rev. Samuel Stearns, Bedford’s fourth minister, whose remains were moved from the Old Burying Ground to Shawsheen Cemetery after it opened in 1849.

Also buried at Shawsheen, he said, is Peter Stearns Freeman, a liberated slave who enlisted during the Revolutionary War. He then returned to Bedford and lived with the Stearns family as a hired servant, Corey said. Two Stearns grandsons killed in the Civil War are also buried there.

Major Barry Seidman Memorial Bridge

The annual tribute to fallen Naval veterans took place at the bridge on The Great Road, which was dedicated in memory of Major Barry A. Seidman on Saturday. Bill Linehan, the town’s veterans agent, presided at the brief ceremony on the 97-year-old span, tossing a bouquet into the Shawsheen River. He referenced Seidman, a decorated Vietnam veteran who resided in Bedford for more than 40 years, as “one of us.”

Members of the Bedford Minute Men play at the Old Burying Ground. Photo by Barbara Purchia

Old Burying Ground

Chuck Hacala of the Bedford Minutemen read the names of 43 men buried in the town’s original cemetery who were combatants during the Revolutionary War. Lee Yates, speaking on behalf of the Bedford Historical Society, said the colonial cemetery is also the final resting place of other residents who fought in King Philip’s War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War.

Since 2001, Terrence Parker has delivered a Memorial Day tribute to three slaves who participated as combatants in the Revolution, Caesar Jones, Cambridge Moore, and Caesar Prescott. They are memorialized on a marker in the Burying Ground. Parker said he was recruited by the former group Concerned Black Citizens of Bedford, which he said was established 50 years ago “to make sure that every resident can receive justice.”

Parker mentioned founding members Leroy Wingood and Irving Smith, as well as his parents, Emanuel and Irene Parker. Mrs. Parker, director of the METCO program in Bedford for 25 years, “was all about community and all about family,” her son said. He added that his mother’s maiden name was White, and her great-nephew is Derek White of the Celtics, eliciting gasps and applause from the audience.

Following Parker’s remarks, a small contingent of Minutemen played a fife-and-drum version of “Amazing Grace.”

Memorial to Bedford High School graduates

The citizen-funded plaza at the entrance to the high school drive, featuring individual plaques in memory of the four BHS graduates who made the supreme sacrifice, is the most recent addition to the annual Memorial Day observances. 

BHS Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Master Sgt./Cadets Matthew Dill and Verna Bowlan took turns sharing the biographies of Terry Reed and Robson Wills, who died in Vietnam, and John Hart and Travis Desiato, killed in Afghanistan. A large contingent of JROTC cadets stood in formation, dressed in camouflage fatigues.

The Bedford Minutemen were among the groups taking part in Monday’s Memorial Day parade and ceremonies. Staff photo by Wayne Braverman

Memorial Day parade

The parade formed on Mudge Way and took a right onto The Great Road, stopping at the World War I boulder at the front of the Common and, after a brief ceremony, continuing to Veterans Memorial Park. Leading was an honor guard of Bedford police and first-responders.

Bob Marshall drove the antique Impala convertible with Piantedosi in the passenger’s seat and two of the grand marshal’s grandchildren in the rear. Select Board members Bopha Malone, chair; Margot Fleischman; Shawn Hanegan; Emily Mitchell; and Paul Mortenson were joined by other dignitaries, including State Rep. Kenneth Gordon; Col. Taona Enriquez, commander of the 66th Air Base Group at Hanscom Air Force Base; and Command Chief Master Sgt. Alan Weary.

There was only a handful of spectators along the line of march, including the Bedford Fire Department shift standing at attention on the apron of the fire station. There was also an audience of passing motorists, as westbound traffic was not detoured until the Memorial Park ceremony began.

World War I memorial

At the World War I monument, Yates used extrapolation to demonstrate the impact of World War 1 on the town. The number of military volunteers and fatalities today would be 710 and 30, respectively, based on the fact that the population has increased tenfold, she said.

With that level of impact, “Wouldn’t we want to ensure that no one ever forgets it?”

World War II memorial

A couple of hundred spectators assembled for the main program for the day in front of the World War II memorial at Veterans Memorial Park. There were plenty of empty chairs, offset by scores of people who chose to stand in the shade.

Paul Purchia, longtime chair of the Patriotic Holiday Committee, served as master of ceremonies, saying, “We have a solemn duty as a grateful nation to pay tribute to the fallen.”

Purchia also thanked the Police, Fire, and Public Works Departments, and gave a biography of the grand marshal. Piantedosi enlisted in the Navy out of college in 1966 and served four years of active duty. A few years later he moved to Bedford, where he continues to be active on town committees after more than 45 years of service.

Enriquez was the keynote speaker, noting her Hanscom assignments prior to her air group command. “My love and profound respect for this community are immense,” she said. She also applauded the involvement in the observances of the next generation: BHS Marching Band and JROTC and Boy and Cub Scouts.

“Freedom is a gift bestowed upon us by countless heroes,” she said, who are not just “names in a history book. They were our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones, and our comrades-in-arms.” She referenced three personnel deployed from Hanscom who died overseas: Senior Airman Nathan C. Sartain and Airman 1st Class Kcey E. Ruiz in 2015 in Afghanistan and Senior Airman Jason Khai Phan in 2002 in Kuwait.

“Memorial Day is also a day of celebration of legacies and of lives spared,” the colonel said. “It is unity that gives us strength.”

Gordon focused his remarks on the lessons learned from what he said was failure by the country to show appreciation to men and women returning from service in Vietnam. The bridge dedication, which he spearheaded, symbolizes that “we recognize and appreciate your service.” He asked Vietnam veterans to rise and be recognized.

One reason Seidman never shared the details of his 900 combat reconnaissance missions and 1,400 hours of flight time, Gordon suggested, was “he didn’t think his story would be appreciated.”

Bopha Malone, chair of the Select Board, said the community’s unified response to the Covid-19 pandemic can be compared to the service and sacrifice of fallen soldiers. “With freedom comes responsibility,” she said, citing a multi-faceted municipal approach that included a food bank and additional mental health resources.

Piantedosi, who as grand marshal raised the colors to full staff at the close of the observances, also continued his annual role, reciting the names of local veterans who died over the past year. There were 53 names on the list; only 10 were veterans of World War II or Korea.

[Editor’s Note: Col. Taona Enriquez is commander of the 66th Air Base Group at Hanscom Air Force Base, not the 65th as originally published. Updated 6/1/2023 3pm]

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