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ROCHESTER — With barely a cloud in the sky on a pleasantly warm late-spring day, hundreds of area residents gathered in the Village of Rochester for a day of festivities Monday, but also for a day of remembrance.

While the celebration and parade took on special significance as the community commemorated its 150th Memorial Day parade, veterans and public officials urged residents to keep in mind the reason for the national holiday and remember the U.S. soldiers who laid down their lives so that other citizens might live and prosper in a free country.

“For 150 years, folks have gathered here in Rochester with family, friends, neighbors — and if you look around there’s probably some people you don’t even know — but you’ve all come here to Rochester to remember our fallen heroes who served and defended this great nation,” said Scott Gunderson, former state legislator who served as emcee of the event.

“You have made it clear to everyone in this country that we must never, ever forget those who died in sharing democracy, protecting our freedoms and standing up for those ideals that make this country the greatest nation in the world,” he added to a burst of applause.

Gunderson was one of numerous speakers — including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester — who addressed hundreds of area residents in the shade of a small gazebo at Pioneer Park, a sliver of land on Front Street along the Fox River near the village’s historic downtown, on Monday afternoon.

In addition, residents heard from five veterans, one from each branch of the United States armed forces, on their experience of Memorial Day.

Before that, hundreds more residents crowded around the streets of downtown Rochester for the 150th time to watch local veterans and servicemen march from the Rochester firehouse on Academy Road, and travel through the village to Pioneer Park.

Civil War roots

The parade and event paid special homage to its origins 150 years ago, when James D. Wright is credited with starting Rochester’s first Decoration Day parade, in May 1867, to honor soldiers killed in military service. In particular, he sought to honor his brother, Joseph D.H. Wright, who was killed on May 15, 1864, while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War Battle of Resaca in Georgia.

Donning a red sash while leading the procession on a blind, white horse, Wright reportedly led the parade for about 50 years. In homage to Wright, the parade included a rider dressed in period garb atop a white horse, as well as Civil War re-enactors who encamped in Pioneer Park.

“Mr. Wright’s love for his brother and love for his country laid the foundation for this Memorial Day ceremony that has continued for over 150 years,” Vos said. “So today, let’s pay the highest tribute to our servicemen and our servicewomen who lost their lives in service to our country fighting for our freedom.”

Speaking later, Ryan wondered to the gathered crowd about what might be going through the minds of those who die in service to their country and why they do it, eventually concluding that perhaps they act without reservation in acceptance of God’s plan for them.

“I think about these people who do this for us, who have done this for us. They were glad to give, they’re happy to serve, you can see it in their pride,” Ryan said. “No other country produces people like this, that’s what makes us so special. They remind us that character is not just something that we can necessarily understand – it’s something that we have to aspire to.”

Quoting Civil War veteran and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Ryan concluded: “Today, all of us bow to the people who died for our country and to their families.”

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