David Whitaker most always drives in the Inman Veterans’ Day parade.
He doesn’t often see much of the parade except for the taillights in front of him. Until the end, that is. Because when he’d circle back to the staging area at Inman Intermediate School, he’d pick up his dad, Eddie, and his uncle Herman.
Then he’d see a different kind of lights. The faces of two veterans just beaming.
“They’d have a lot of stories,” he said. “Did you see them looking at us? Did you see them waving their flags? They loved it.”
That’s one reason the Inman American Legion Auxiliary Unit 45 keeps committing to the parade year after year, according to Auxiliary president Wanda Ballenger.
“There aren’t many of the parades left,” Ballenger said. “In the Upstate, there aren’t many active Auxiliaries left. The majority are more in the middle and lower part of the state.”
And the parade isn’t the focus of the Auxiliary. They send students to Palmetto Girls State. They work with the Palmetto Patriots home, and with community projects at Lakewood and Rosecrest. They distribute bags for the homeless, and blankets when Inman has a need. There’s a community project with Inman Elementary School’s kindergarten and first-grade students to provide a change of clothes if students need one.
Those are the guts of what the Auxiliary assists with. But there’s a lot more. For instance, there’s the Fourth of July cookout for veterans and their families that the Auxiliary started a few years back.
“Most of our veterans are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s,” Ballenger said. “They don’t go to the beach for the Fourth. They don’t travel. But their families do, so they sit at home. We cook hot dogs and hamburgers, and if they want to come up and sit and talk to us, or talk to each other, and just tell stories, we love to have them. They can bring their grandkids. It’s at lunch, so they can be back home in plenty of time for fireworks at night. Everybody really seems to enjoy it.”
They also seem to enjoy the parade, and the sentiment behind it.
“The parade is important to us,” Ballenger said. “It’s a thank-you to the veterans. The schools do a wonderful job.”
District One’s efforts are something that Whitaker is very familiar with. He helped to start a lot of them when he was teaching at Campobello-Gramling School.
“What I started at Campobello went along with a grant for a Veterans’ Garden,” he explained. “It was in April, and I just ended up inviting all these veterans I knew when I was growing up – men like Jim Everhart, Rule Trout, John Wilkins. Then as it got a little closer to time, it was just ‘well, we’ve got them here, let’s not let this go to waste. Let’s have them talk to the kids’. That was in 2007, and it went until we had to stop for Covid. It was fifth grade at first, when they were studying World War II. Then it expanded to eighth grade, and the kids would just explode that they got to see the veterans again, and that the men and women would see them and recognize them.”
Whitaker also had students help collect Christmas cards for the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
“We had a kid whose grandpa had a Purple Heart, and who asked for help with the cards,” he said. “The first year, we got 80. The next year, we got 600. Our biggest year, in 2017, we had 13,200. Each school in the district competed, we had sending off ceremonies with bands and flags, and the cards went all over. In nine years, Campobello-Gramling collected 73,000. I think the schools combined for more than 120,000. District One has always kind of led the way on these things.”
Whitaker thinks that connection to the students in the community is something that helps drive the parade.
“I think the biggest thing is that the kids come out,” he said. “Having it on a school day, you kind of have a captive audience. When the veterans ride by those kids, you can see everybody kind of brighten up. It’s not the Christmas parade, but when they drive by those kids, it’s loud and it’s big.”
“They love it,” she said. “The veterans love seeing the kids.”
This year’s parade will step off at 11 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 10, weather permitting. There will be a Purple Heart Veteran leading the way, the Chapman band and ROTC will participate, and there will be a flag-raising and a wreath-laying. Afterward, lunch will be provided, and several area restaurants are offering veterans free meals on Saturday.
And, while it’s not their biggest purpose, Ballenger said it’s a vital one.
“We’re going to keep having it as long as we can,” she said.
Images courtesy of Inman Elementary School's Facebook page and the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 45 Facebook Community page