Brenda Orman shares the story of her fifth great-grandfather, Presbyterian minister John Rossbrugh, after she placed a freshly painted metal poppy in the sun to dry. Rossbrugh, she said during a work session last year, led a militia in the Continental Army and was caught behind the lines during the Revolutionary War Battle of Trenton. The poppy bears the date 1/2/1777.
Orman’s poppy is one of the 250 featured at the Livingston County Veterans Monument near the county’s Hampton Corners Complex at Groveland Road and Gypsy Lane in the town of Groveland.
Hers is just one of the stories as each of the poppies in the open-air monument have stories of their own.
John-Paul Holubek of Springwater secured a metal plate dedicated to unknown soldiers to one of his five poppies. On another, he welded scrap metal in the shape of a plane to honor his father’s uncle, a fighter pilot who flew on D-Day.
Dennis Staley of Geneseo attached a little submarine in the center of one of his poppies. It is a symbol representing the decade he spent in the Navy’s submarine service. It’s also one of 10 poppies that he made.
James Shaughnessy came to help others and never expected he’d be making his own poppy.
“We are all war veterans and it has just been a very satisfying project,” said Shaughnessy, who served with the Air Force in Vietnam and was a flight examiner during the first Gulf War. “All branches of the service are represented, which makes it really nice.”
Each of the poppies is an individual tribute, created by some 160 veterans and family members, and part of a larger monument. Each poppy is tagged with the name of one or more veterans – either the one who made the poppy, or the names of veterans they wished to honor.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing. It’s a tribute to the ‘Greatest Generation’ and generations after. It’s important to America to have had these people serve – men and women who without we wouldn’t have anyone protecting us,” said Francis Schirmer of Leicester, who made four poppies. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
The poppies were permanently installed last month and additional finishing touches completed leading up to the special flag raising on Veterans Day that culminates a more than two-year project. A formal dedication is planned when COVID-19 restrictions will allow for larger gatherings of people.
“This has been a great opportunity for veterans to get together. They came from all over the county to meet and build relationships,” said Jason Skinner, director of the Livingston County Veterans Services Agency.
The poppies, installed from 1 to 3 feet in height, are designed to swivel in the breeze to emulate a waving American flag. The red, metal poppies are placed along seven red stripes, while six white stripes provide a walking path for visits. A blue canton, reserved for ceremonies, is surrounded by branch flags.
A unique monument
Skinner and Olie Olson, metal trades instructor at Genesee Valley BOCES in Mount Morris, developed the idea for the monument – it was inspired by the World War I poem “In Flanders Field” – and led it through an approval process with the Livingston County Board of Supervisors.
“The monument is unique as it was created by veterans for veterans to celebrate the veteran population,” Skinner said.
Skinner first pitched a poppy monument idea in October 2018 to Olson, who came up with the idea of an American flag monument made with metal poppies.
Olson and his teaching assistant Rory Benkleman volunteered to open their classroom after school to teach and assist veterans in making the poppies. Many of the veterans had never worked with metal before.
Staley said he didn’t know how to cut or weld metal before joining the project.
“I could paint like anyone else, but that’s about it,” Staley said with a hearty laugh. “It’s been outstanding, how they’ve shared their knowledge.”
During the spring and fall of 2019, veterans from Livingston and surrounding counties came to the Mount Morris Career and Technical Education Center once a week to spend two hours working to create the poppies.
“I’ve never done anything like this,” Debbie Davis of Caledonia said one evening as she made a poppy in honor of her father, Jimmy Donnelly, a World War II Army veteran from Caledonia. “It’s fun; not hard to grasp.”
Each poppy began from a 2-foot-by-2-foot sheet of gray mild steel. Veterans could then draw four or five petals freehand or trace petals from templates. The poppies were then cut from the 3/32-inch thick steel using a plasma cutter.
After cutting, pieces would be grinded to smooth the edges. Petals were shaped, curled and welded together to resemble flowers. In the back of the shop, several tables were set aside for painting.
Other adornments would be added – Olson included a maple leaf to honor his father who was part of the Canadian Air Force – or engraved on the petals.
“You’d look around, and all the veterans were really engaged and helping each other,” Olson said during a session in late spring 2019.
And when a new face arrived and asked “How do I start?” a veteran would take them by the hand and lead them through the process, Olson said. “There was something every session.”
Cathy Cook of Avon wanted to honor all the veterans in her family – there were nearly a half dozen.
“At first I needed a lot help from the veterans, but now I’m more comfortable on my own,” she said last year while working on her third. “I thought this would be a great way to honor them.”
The project proved so popular that it was expanded from its initial plan of 100 poppies to the 250 in the final design.
“The veterans just kept coming and coming,” Skinner said. “Some nights, you’d walk in there and see more than 40 people working.”
And sometimes it would be a group of veterans – from a servicemen’s post, or a group of friends – or family members.
“It was neat to see a large community of veterans of different ages in groups working together,” Skinner said. “They shared a bond, a purpose of partnership. As they made poppies, they’d share stories – who they were thinking of when they made it. It built a resiliency among their greater community.”
One session found Dan Lofurno of Springwater, Joe DeTucci of Avon and Ray Arieno of Spingwater working together on poppies. DeTucci and Arieno are Army veterans, Lofurno served in the Navy as an aviation machinist mate.
“I liked the idea,” Lofurno said, “and am so glad that I came.”
DeTucci, who served in Germany, saw the project as a way to learn a little about metal trades, contribute to a community project and bond with members of other legions.
Tom Reynolds of Lima got involved after hearing about the project from a neighbor.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for me to get into some activities with veterans,” said Reynolds, who, along with his brother Paul, served in Vietnam. He created a poppy that includes his name, and his brother’s and brother’s wife’s names.
Reynolds, like many participants, talked about the friendships and camaraderie that developed.
“It’s been an opportunity to meet people in community that we don’t normally run into,” he said. “And by community, I mean Livingston County. And some have come from Wyoming County, Steuben County, and more and more people got involved so it was a good cross section of people in Western New York.”
Ian Smith of Mount Morris spent five years in the Army and thought the project would be a “great way to resocialize and help out a great project.”
While the veterans were making the poppies, the site was being prepared and developed by the Livingston County Highway Department. Employees cleared and graded the site. More than 5,000 tons of gravel and crusher run material was spread and compact to provide a foundation for the monument. An extensive drainage system was also installed to ensure the integrity of the site over time.
A 6-inch-thick concrete pad provides the surface for the more than 8,150 square foot flag painted on the monument. Four local companies – Spallina Materials, C.P. Ward, Ramsey Constructors and Kircher Construction – pooled their resources to complete the pad.
The installation of the monument, including hard and soft landscaping, was also handled by the Highway Department.
“This monument has been garnering attention from across the state because of its uniqueness, symbolism, partnerships and public involvement,” said former Livingston County Highway Superintendent Don Higgins, a Marine Corps veteran and a leader of the Patriot Guard Riders.
Higgins attributes the success of this project to the extensive collaboration among Livingston County leaders, the Highway Department, Veteran Services, Genesee Valley BOCES and the veteran community.
“Their unwavering support,” he said, “signifies a genuine appreciation for all Livingston County veterans who have served our country.”