The late-morning sun illuminated Sea Cliff’s Clifton Park on Monday, warming residents who had gathered near the memorial rock for the James F. Brengel American Legion’s annual Veterans Day ceremony.
For 99 years, the rock has stood as a poignant reminder of those lost in battle. Post Commander Phil Como said that when it was first brought to the village in 1919, residents referred to it as “a glacial pebble.” A plaque on the rock’s façade commemorates the 108 Sea Cliff soldiers who shipped off to fight on the Western Front during the First World War. Eight never returned.
The memory of those men lives on in eight towering oak trees, which were planted in the park in their honor. As the sun rose toward the center of the sky, the shadows cast by the trees passed slowly across the field.
Dozens of residents spanning multiple generations came out to support the legion by observing the sacrifices made by veterans from all wars. Como began the ceremony with a brief history lesson, prompting guests to imagine that it was Nov. 12, 1918 — one day after World War I ended.
“America has stepped onto the world stage,” Como said. “The world was changing quickly and exponentially. Radio, not Facebook, was the common craze, and women were just receiving their overdue right to vote.”
He noted that 116,000 Americans had died serving their country in the First World War, including eight from Sea Cliff. “They all provided a service to their country and forfeited their lives to help ensure the continuation of our way of life,” he said. “We are here, and we remember.”
The Rev. Kirt Watkins, of Sea Cliff’s United Methodist Church, blessed the ceremony, and resident Cathy Virgilio sang “America the Beautiful,” her voice echoing through the trees.
Mayor Edward Lieberman, touched by the turnout, said, “Today, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the war to end all wars, we recognize and honor our veterans for their service to the community and making our village safe for democracy.”
The mayor gave special thanks to the parents who had young children in tow.
“When young people remember the sacrifices of their elders, whether it’s in public service or the military,” Como said, “I think it’s a good thing, because it enables them to understand how history meshes with current events.”
Veteran Richard Collins, of Sea Cliff, said he appreciated the show of support by the younger generations, juxtaposing it against the nationwide protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s, which he served in as an infantry squad leader.
“We’ve evolved to the point now where we appreciate service regardless of when it happened, and it’s gratifying,” Collins said. “It’s a nice way to bring members of the community together in a very positive way.”
“I think sometimes we lose sight of just how great that sacrifice was in terms of the number of people that served, and the number of people that made the ultimate sacrifice,” Collins said of the First World War. “It’s good to reflect.”