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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Exclusive club, reluctant members

By John Halverson/The Week

Sun from a rainy day fills the windows and floods the floors of Lakeland Health Care Center.

Terry Mayer/The Week
Ella Mae Walker with a photograph of her son, Tom, who was killed while serving his country in Vietnam. Walker is perhaps the oldest Gold Star Mother in Walworth County, an honor given to those who have had a loved one killed in service.
As you walk the halls, you can't help but notice the men and women in their rooms and the family photos on their walls, many black and white--many, I notice this day, are of men in uniform.

Near the end of one hall, Ella Mae Walker sits in her wheelchair next to a radio playing "Sweet Talking Guy" by the Chiffons. The song hit the charts in 1966 when Ella Mae was 51 and her middle son was still alive.

"Excuse me," she says swiveling the wheelchair. "Let me turn that off."

We're here to discuss that, at 93, she's probably the area's oldest Gold Star Mother. It's an honor to be a Gold Star Mother, but becoming one is a tragedy because it means you lost a child in the service of his or her country.

Ella Mae once worked at Lakeland Health Care Center, where she now lives, but "in the old building"--a twist of fate we share with a smile. And she lived "three farms down," she says with a wave of the hand.

She qualified to become a Gold Star Mother because her son, PFC Thomas D. Walker--whose photo sits on a nearby windowsill--was killed on Dec. 26, 1968, when he stepped on a land mine. Ninety-seven percent of those who served in Vietnam were spared. Tom was not among them. He was one of 537 killed that month, the eighth deadliest month of the war.

The prime benefit of being a Gold Star mother? "I used to march in the Elkhorn parade," Ella Mae said.

The day her son died, the Paris peace talks were stalled because the participants were arguing about whether to use square or round tables. It was a Thursday, the day the Elkhorn Independent published, so Tom's death didn't make the front page until a week later--beneath a photo of the New Year's baby and next to a story about a medal being given to a returning serviceman.

What made Tom's death especially shocking was that he had been in Vietnam only 16 days prior to his death, according to the Independent. What made it even more poignant for the family, even years later, is that a close friend of his had died only months before.

Her husband, Cecil, was especially hurt, Ella Mae said.

"He just couldn't take it."

Tom had worked on the farm with his father until taking a job at Wick's Building systems in January 1968. When he quit farming, he lost his deferment and by July he'd been drafted.

The Independent said he graduated from Elkhorn High School in 1963, performed in the class play and was active in the Future Farmers of America. He was married, but had no children and, according to Ella Mae, he enjoyed farming and the out of doors.

His older brother, Jim, who now lives in Kentucky, said the family was especially grateful for the support from members of Tom's graduation class. The youngest son, Bill, lives in Idaho.

"I'm proud of all my sons," Ella Mae says.

The National Gold Star Mothers was formed in 1928. In the 1960s, at the height of its membership, they had about 20,000 members. They were organized on index cards then, which amazes Ruth Stonesifer, second vice president of the Gold Star Mothers.

"Wow ... how did they do that?" she mused in an e-mail. "We are around 2,000 now, which is a good thing when you look at the larger picture. No one wants to become eligible to join our organization."

And while the opinion of some is that the number of Gold Star Mothers is dropping because fewer apply, Stonesifer has a different perspective.

"Our membership is just at the turning point of having 50 percent Vietnam mothers and 50 percent post Vietnam," she said. "It sometimes takes a long time for a mother to find out about us or they do not have the time to devote because they still work full time. But the Iraq and Afghanistan moms are working their way up to the national board. I will be the first Afghanistan mother to become national president in three years."

In Walworth County, the photos of Gold Star Mothers occupy three frames on the wall of an upper room reserved for the American Legion post in Elkhorn's city hall. The room is surrounded by windows and has the comfortable, slightly musty feel of an old schoolhouse.

Ella Mae is a Gold Star mother, but she's also every person who has experienced death (she also lost her husband a couple of years ago), health issues (The Week did a story on her struggling with blindness back in 1992) and now old age. Despite all that, she looks only slightly older than she did in The Week 16 years ago.

Her name and birth date are written on a tombstone in Hickory Grove Cemetery, northwest of Spring Prairie, off Highway 11. On the same headstone is the name of her husband. On the tombstone to her right is her son's.

The older tombstones in the cemetery are more ornate and stand tall as though reaching to the heavens. As befitting a farming family, the Walkers' headstones are plain and down-to-earth.

The only flowers near Tom Walker's grave are red and yellow and plastic.

But behind those tombstones, as spring takes root, torrents of sunlight ripple in the water in the ruts of a nearby farmer's field--a sure harbinger of life's cyclical nature.

Ooo

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms Stonesifer has a nice web site about her son Kris at: http://www.rstonesifer.com/kris. You can see some of her other projects at http://www.rstonesifer.com.

April 17, 2008 3:55 PM  

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