By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — Joseph “Peppy” DiGregorio died on April 14, 1970, while serving his country as a member of the U.S. Army.
The 19-year-old Niagara Falls native was fighting in Vietnam at the time of his death. That was 43 years ago.
His sister, Flora Travis, and his mother, Domenica DeGregorio, think about him everyday. They’ll never forget the sacrifice he made.
“It’s been so many years, but it still hurts,” Travis said.
Today, members of the DeGregorio family have a place close to home where they can spend a little time reflecting on their loved one’s life and service. The black granite monument of the Niagara Falls Veterans Memorial in Hyde Park was designed to be an exact dimensional replica of the white marble Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. However, Niagara Falls erected its to memorialize and commemorate all of the city’s service members who have been killed in action since the Civil War. “Peppy’s” name is one of 463 inscribed on that main monument.
“It’s an honor to have my brother’s name on the monument,” Travis said. “My family’s very proud. It’s just good to know that he will always be remembered and be memorialized.”
The sealed sarcophagus honoring those who have been killed in action was consecrated by a Catholic priest, an Orthodox priest, a rabbi and a Baptist minister. It contains the personal effects of some of the fallen soldiers whose names it bear, including letters from the government informing families of the deaths of their loved ones, pictures, dog tags and name tags. A Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, a rose, an evergreen and the monument’s original construction drawings were included as well.
“We wanted to give it life so when people are there it had some reverence to it,” said David Fabrizio, a veteran of the Marine Corps, who is one of the founding members of the Niagara Falls Veterans Memorial Commission. “When those various denominations blessed it, it became a sacred place.”
Stories like DeGregorio’s drove the development of the memorial, a place of tribute made of 1,800 tons of solid, U.S. granite. In addition to the names of those fallen soldiers from the Falls, families, friends and visitors will find the names (1,500 and counting) of other veterans who have served in the U.S. armed forces from all over the nation and around the world. Those names are inscribed on a section of the memorial known as the “Veterans Wall of Honor.” It was erected to allow those veterans who served with honor to “stand watch” over their fallen brothers and sisters in arms.
In terms of volume of granite, commission members say the Falls memorial ranks second in size to only the Atlantic and Pacific Arches found at the World War II monument in Washington, D.C.
“It is a real accomplishment,” said commission member Ken Hamilton, one of the first local veterans to recommend construction of a monument for the city’s fallen soldiers. “It far exceeded my wildest expectations.”
The veterans memorial grew out of a discussion dating back to June of 2007 when family members and friends of local soldiers Aram Bass and Lorne Henry Jr. — both of whom were killed in action during the Iraq War — approached city lawmakers in hopes of having streets named after their loved ones.
Several local veterans suggested the city take a different course — the development of monument that would honor all soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“We all had the same view,” Fabrizio said. “We had no idea we were going to have a commission or do anything like this.
As word spread, a loose-knit committee comprised of a handful of area vets representing various branches of the military grew into a formal non-profit organization. In February of 2008, Niagara Falls Veterans Memorial Commission, Inc. was officially born. The commission included Fabrizio as chair along with: Vice Chairman Michael “Mickey” Rimmen, USMC; Secretary Thomas Robbins, USAF; Treasurer David Venditti, USN/USAF and commissioners Duane Frost, USMC; Kenneth Gerg, USAF; Rich Slepinski, USMC; Stan Zimmerman, USA/USAF and Hamilton, USN.
“It was a bunch of guys who got together and said ‘we are going to build this thing,’” Fabrizio said.
“None of us thought we’d end up going into the construction and development business,” he added with a laugh.
In May of 2010, the city council authorized the use of $500,000 in casino revenue to support the project. A year later, former state Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte sponsored a $250,000 grant to help build the memorial. Her successor, current state Assemblyman John Ceretto, helped secure the dollars for the effort in April of 2012, according to the commission.
Fundraising, design and construction took several years. It also came with significant contributions from local labor organizations and businesses as well as dozens of individuals who donated time, money or services to the cause.
“Everybody has a father, an uncle, a grandfather, a son that served in the military,” Hamilton said. “I think it might be a way for them to give back to those who served.”
And give they did, again and again. Shipments of stone, pieces of equipment and manpower arrived whenever needed, often free of charge, thanks to a myriad of advisors and supporters, including: Clyde Johnston and the Niagara County Building Trades Council; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 237; LaFarge Co.; Buffalo Fuel Corp.; Fox Fence Co.; Mark Cerrone Construction; McGill Construction Co.; Scott Lawn Co.; Stone Art Monument Co.; Laborers Local 91; Clark Equipment and Rigging and the city of Niagara Falls police, fire and public works departments and others that commissioners said will later be announced.
“There’s a lot, a lot of work that’s been done behind the scenes,” Fabrizio said.
There’s some still going on as well. The New York Power Authority, after prodding from state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, and consultation with President and CEO Gil Quiniones, agreed to supply and install the ground lighting system for the memorial.
The commission has plans to expand the memorial and has approached the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission about supporting its efforts to add an Iwo Jima Memorial that would be erected on the corner of Pine Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. Plans call for it to be connected to the main monument by a Memorial Bridge. A reception center, benches, flags honoring all branches of the U.S. military and other additions are also on the commission’s to-do list.
The memorial is now open to the public. It will be the site of this year’s Veteran’s Day ceremony in Niagara Falls. The event starts at 11 a.m. on Monday at Hyde Park.
Commission members said they are planning a full grand opening ceremony for Memorial Day 2014.
In thinking about the now near-finished product, Fabrizio said he likes to think about the family members of fallen soldiers who offered their encouragement to him and other commission members during the years it took to make the memorial a reality.
He said he hopes all those who visit the memorial will appreciate its significance and use it as a place to reflect on the service of all military men and women, past and present.
“I want people to walk away with a sense of awe and reverence,” Fabrizio said. “I want people to know how they live today in this country was paid for in blood. There’s no free ride.”