Vietnam veterans honored at Geauga Fair

Tribune Chronicle / Burton Cole Veterans representing all branches of the military line a stage in front of the main grandstand Friday at the Great Geauga County Fair for the Vietnam War Commemoration in Burton. At left is Ohio Supreme Court Justice William M. O’Neill, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served during Vietnam. At right is the symbolic table setting for prisoners of war, including a white cloth (purity of their response) on a round table (never-ending concern) with an empty chair (unknown face). There are lemon slices and salt on the bread plate to represent their bitter fate and tears of their families, a yellow ribbon on a candle to represent hope of a homecoming, a single red rose for family and loved ones and red ribbon for love of country.

BURTON — By noon Friday, the main grandstand at the Great Geauga County Fair was mostly full of people, many of them with gray heads or wearing military caps.

By the time the ceremony was over, about 500 commemorative lapel pins were presented to surviving family members and veterans of the Vietnam War.

“Look around you, folks,” said retired Army 1st Sgt. Michael G. Blair, president of the Geauga County Veterans Service Commission. “You’re in the company of some of the greatest Americans alive.”

Friday marked both Seniors Day and Veterans Day at the 195th edition of Ohio’s oldest fair, with both groups receiving free admission. The fair also hosted a Vietnam War Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of America’s involvement in the war.

In his invocation, Army veteran George Zehnder, retired pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Chesterland, said, “Listen to those who have served. Listen to their stories. Listen to what they have to say. They don’t always want to talk but once they understand you want to listen, they will open up and they will talk and that will bring healing in their lives.”

Featured speaker William M. O’Neill, an Ohio Supreme Court justice and a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Vietnam, said “Welcome home. That’s what today is all about.”

He said he’s seen plenty of changes in the nation since he joined the Army in 1967. “One thing that hasn’t changed is when America calls its citizens to action, they respond. Guess what youngsters — in the 1960s, we were the first responders.”

Most of the people huddled in the main grandstand at the fair wore jackets or coats. Friday was one of the cooler days in fair history. The thermometer didn’t climb out of the 50s until after 1 p.m. and stayed in the low to mid-60s during the sunny afternoon.

Over at the Vernon Howard Pavilion, the county Department of Aging provided doughnuts and coffee to guests 65 and older at a “senior hangout.”

At a picnic table across from the pavilion, Don, 81, and Judy, 76, Began of Claridon, sipped coffee before heading off to view the neighboring display of antique military vehicles and equipment.

Despite the chill, Judy Began said there wasn’t a question that they’d come to the fair.

“We’ve been going forever,” she said. “We both went to Chardon High School. This is where we came every fall before school started because we missed all our school friends. That was in the ’50s.”

Don Began showed pigs at the fair when he was a youth in 4-H. After the couple married, they became fair exhibitors all over again.

“We came one year and saw these cantaloupes that were not like ours,” Judy Began said. “We said, ‘Next year, we’re going to enter.’ “

They became a fair family, with all the kids going through 4-H.

“All our kids,” Judy Began said. “We had dogs and horses and the girls with sewing. We had all kinds of ribbons.”

Seniors weren’t lining up for the carnival games, the Ferris wheel or other rides. But some found the aroma of sausage sandwiches and chicken fajitas too much too resist. For others, it was books. Just inside Gate 1 sits a building packed full of used books for $1 or less. Proceeds benefit the Geauga County Public Library bookmobile.

How many books?

“We took a guess one time, including books, books on CD, DVDs, (music) CDs — we figured over 30,000,” a volunteer said. “It’s an estimate. Trust me, I’m not going to sit down and count them.”

At the Burton Chamber of Commerce booth near the main grandstand, Christine Blythe and Michael Liedtke presided over an aromatic table stocked with brochures, maple sugar candy and maple syrup. Geauga County is known for its maple syrup production, which is one of the reasons people need to come to the fair, they said.

“They need to come to the fair because this is the oldest fair in the state of Ohio and there’s something for all ages,” Blythe said.