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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Rededicated to honoring the greatest

— While there is much to remark upon regarding the restored and vastly improved World War II Memorial on the northeast corner of Pasco County’s historic courthouse square, the project’s foreman is proudest of a detail few will ever notice.

But Andrew Baxter, Pasco’s acting facilities manager, is a man of precision for whom setting things in proper sequence is a passion. Thus did he seize upon the process of swapping out the old, original, cracked and crumbling Masonite panels behind Plexiglas with polished granite slabs as an opportunity to repair a 60-year-old mistake — one for which Baxter, not quite 37, felt a bizarre, if touching, personal responsibility.

Edward M. Sunka, brother of John Sunka Jr., was left off the original accounting of Pasco-linked men and women who’d served within the penumbra of America’s involvement in World War II, a period that extended to those who enlisted after the fighting ended but took part in the national wind-down. Ed Sunka, who did a one-year hitch that began in February 1946, was among them.

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Notified by the family decades after the original dedication, Baxter personally painted “Sunka, Edward M.” in the space below “Ziegler, Roger.” In the granite version, the one scheduled for rededication Saturday on the 60th anniversary of the original’s Flag Day 1954 unveiling, Ed has his alphabetical place by his brother, below the Sumners (Garland, Horace, Jack, Leon and Sam) and above the Surratts (Edward and Samuel).

Other names have been added, some that were painted on over the years, others never previously accounted for, bringing the total to 1,860, including 39 who were killed or went missing. Having etched their lives into the outcome of mankind’s most ferocious conflict, the names of these members of the Greatest Generation have been etched permanently on granite.

At virtually any cost, it would have been the right thing to do, says Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader: “We needed to protect in perpetuity those who fought for freedom.” Happily, however, the project, originally forecast to cost about $50,000, came in at a little more than half that. Hustled by, among others, retired Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson, who hatched the restoration plan, and his longtime county colleague Carol Lorenzi Logue, the daughter and mom of U.S. Marines, 54 private-sector donors contributed $12,195; the county and Dade City covered the balance.

Logue’s sense of urgency raged the morning she discovered a skateboard wedged into a crack in one of the Plexiglas protectors, where it had been abandoned. “That was quite a memory,” she says. Not to mention quite the call to action.

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The finished product, 14 granite slabs on an octagonal bandstand erected in 1925 in hopes of landing a date with conductor John Philip Souza and his touring band — that didn’t work out — is simultaneously somber and delightful, the names, painted in gold, telling a tale of noble, historic sacrifice while reminding latecomers about the humans comprising a virtual who’s-who of Pasco roads, neighborhoods and landmarks.

As near as anyone can tell, only two of the nearly 2,000 survive: Stanley Burnside, 94, the longtime clerk of court, and 90-year-old Florian Gude.

Burnside, a recent Florida Southern College graduate who entered the war a private and exited a major, island-hopped around the Pacific as the commander of a truck company. Gude served stateside after his older brother Leonard, a sergeant with an anti-tank unit, was killed in France a month after D-Day.

Also surviving, after consultation with members of Pasco’s black community and swallowing hard, is the historic segregation of 193 black service members, albeit without the one-time distinction — “Colored” — that was mercifully painted out of the original in 1968.

Now that it’s all over but the rededication, Baxter has returned to other pressing matters, among them the SunWest Park development in Aripeka and the Fields at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, comparative monstrosities that will devour years and millions of dollars.

Not that those in any way diminish what was achieved at the little bandstand memorial in the heart of Dade City.

“It’s a minor project in terms of time and cost,” Baxter said. “But as to significance, it’s off the charts.”

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