OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Just before dark Monday, more than 200 glowing luminaries lined the pathway through Veterans Memorial Park as a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.”
About 50 people watched as night fell and the candle-filled bags decorated with tributes to fallen troops dotted the park.
“I hope the people here get an appreciation for what Memorial Day means,” said Ryan Kelly of Old Orchard Beach. “It’s not just a day for cookouts and being with family and friends to mark the start of the season. It’s important to remember those who aren’t with us.”
Monday’s Illumination Night marked the start of the third summer of flag ceremonies in Old Orchard Beach to honor veterans. The ceremonies, held each evening at 6, are both somber and celebratory, a way to show the human side of those who served in the armed forces, say the committee members who organize the events.
“With all of the craziness of the beach in the background, in that moment in time it’s a very special tribute to the veteran and family,” said Tina Morrison, a member of the town’s Veterans Memorial Park Committee. “It’s such a simple idea. It brings people together.”
During the past two summers, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the ceremonies have brought attention to the park and added to the sense of community in this small beach town.
The idea came from Dennis Robillard, a resident who heard of a similar practice in Cape May, N.J.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we do it here?’ ” he said. “I thought it was a nice way to pay tribute to the men and women who served our country.”
Each night, a U.S. flag is raised. The luminary tribute has been held in past years on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend. It was moved to Monday night this year because of Sunday’s raw, cold weather.
“Last year, we had a different crowd — a lot of people from out of town — and it was very somber. No one talked. People cried. This year, we’ve got mostly our local community here,” said Mary Beth Robillard, chairwoman of the park committee. “Both ways are special.”
Some of the luminary bags were decorated with elaborate paintings, while others had children’s drawings on them. Most simply had the names of the fallen veterans and the dates of their deaths.
“To Herbie and Patrick — Thank you so much for being our sons. We are so proud of the 2 of you for serving your country for the United States Navy. Love, Mom and Dad,” read one bag. Another read: “Missing you. George Shearer — U.S. Navy.”
Aly Ernstberger of Old Orchard Beach came out to decorate a bag for her grandfather, who served in the Army during the Korean War.
“The Army meant a lot to my grandfather and he meant a lot to me, so this is a way to honor him,” Ernstberger said.
Veterans Memorial Park, a block from the beach and just off the town’s main drag, was used for many years as a parking lot for summer visitors. Residents petitioned the Town Council to buy the land in 1942, but only a small portion of the 7.8-acre parcel was developed into a park. The parking lot generated needed income for the town, but the lot was otherwise vacant for nine months of the year.
Since 1999, the park has slowly been transformed into a lush landscape with winding paths lined by flower gardens. Families now flock to the park to picnic, play basketball and petanque or walk their dogs.
In the summer, people who are in the park at 6 p.m. tend to stop and watch during the flag ceremonies, said Mary Beth Robillard. Some nights, only committee members come out to recognize a veteran. On a night when no family has arranged for a ceremony, committee members choose someone to honor.
They have recognized all of the veterans listed on the town’s memorial, and are now working their way through the list of those with ties to Maine who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rachel Massarelli of Old Orchard Beach tries to attend the flag ceremony every night.
“It’s only 10 or 15 minutes a day, and it could change someone’s life or mean something more to them than we’ll ever know,” Massarelli said.
Sheila Lauzon, an Old Orchard Beach resident who works at the Libby Memorial Library, sees committee members preparing for the ceremonies as she leaves work. In 2011, she and her family planned a ceremony to honor her late father, Thomas I. Leavitt, a World War II veteran who was stationed in Hawaii and Tokyo from 1942-45. After the war, he was a police lieutenant in Lowell, Mass., and brought his children to Old Orchard Beach each summer.
Lauzon said her family was able to honor her father by holding the flag ceremony, then doing what he loved most in Old Orchard Beach: heading downtown for pier fries, pizza and games at the arcade.
“It was like coming full circle and being able to give back to him,” she said of the ceremony, during which she spoke about her father’s legacy.
Lauzon said she is proud to be part of a community that is so dedicated to honoring veterans, whether they have a connection to Old Orchard Beach or not. She is especially moved to see how everything in the park seems to stop, for just a few moments, each night as a veteran is recognized.
“You can’t help but stop and give honor to what’s happening,” Lauzon said. “It’s truly beautiful and peaceful.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at [email protected]
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at [email protected]