'Pain and pride': Gold Star families to be honored with Naperville memorial

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to indicate the city of Naperville owns the land where the Gold Star memorial is located. The Naperville Park District leases and maintains the land.

Memorial Day weekend always, and understandably, strikes Denise Williams hard.

The Plainfield resident lost her son, Andrew Meari, in 2010 when he was killed in Afghanistan while serving in the Army. Meari, who died trying to prevent a suicide bomber from entering his unit's camp in Kandahar, was 21 years old.

Thirteen years later, the sacrifice made by Meari and the pain felt by his family endure.

On Saturday in Naperville, families of local fallen soldiers will be honored when a Gold Star memorial is unveiled in Veterans Park as part of Memorial Day weekend ceremonies.

Williams, president of the Illinois Department of American Gold Star Mothers, will deliver the keynote address. For all the appearances she's made on behalf of the group, Williams knows the day will be particularly emotional for her.

"That mixture of pain and pride, and gratitude and awe and sadness," she said. "I know it's just going to be emotionally overwhelming, but it's something that's incredibly important to me."

The monument, the first of its kind in Illinois, is the creation of Hershel "Woody" Williams, a World War II Marine veteran who earned the Medal of Honor through his heroic actions on Iwo Jima. Williams died last year.

A longtime advocate for veterans, the West Virginia native formed the Woody Williams Foundation, which has been responsible for establishing 122 Gold Star Families Memorial Monuments throughout the country.

The two-sided tribute is made of black granite. One side reads, "Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, a tribute to Gold Star families and relatives who sacrificed a loved one for our freedom." The center of the monument shows the silhouette of a saluting service member.

The other side features patriotic images and four panels with the words "Homeland, Family, Patriot and Sacrifice." Oliver "Judd" Kendall - a Naperville native killed while serving in the Army during World War I, and whose name honors VFW Post 3873 - is highlighted on the Naperville memorial.

The Naperville monument, co-sponsored by the Century Walk Foundation, cost more than $80,000 to build and install. The money was quickly raised thanks in much part to donations from groups such as the Naperville Freemasons, Naperville Responds for Veterans, the American Legion Riders and the city of Naperville's SECA Fund. The land, owned by the city, is leased and maintained the Naperville Park District.

Marine veterans Lew Breese and Jennifer Slown, co-chairs of the Naperville memorial committee, were key in raising the funds and bringing the monument to Naperville.

"I've had friends who lost their lives overseas, and friends who have lost their lives at home due to the lingering effects of war," said Slown, a 2006 graduate of Naperville North High School. "It's their families who bear the burden of that loss and that emptiness.

"For me, personally, it was just a small gesture I could do to draw support," she said. "It was definitely many hands coming together for an incredibly worthy cause."

The groundbreaking ceremony for the monument took place two years ago, building to the unveiling.

The Naperville Municipal Band and Naperville Men's Glee Club will perform during Saturday's ceremony. The Lima Lima Flight Team will fly over the site in their vintage military planes.

Army veteran Allen James Lynch, a Gurnee resident who earned the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, will lead the Pledge of Allegiance.

The public is encouraged to attend the ceremony, which begins at 2 p.m. Saturday in Veterans Park, at 303 E. Gartner Road.

"It's beyond humbling to be part of this project," Denise Williams said. "This community wants to tell the story forever of the cost of war. And this memorial will be a reminder that there are people among them that paid the worst price that can be paid."

Denise Williams, president of the Illinois Department of American Gold Star Mothers, speaks to the crowd during a 2021 groundbreaking ceremony for a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in Naperville. Williams' son, Andrew Meari, was killed in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan. Daily Herald file photo
The front of the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument pays tribute to the families of soldiers killed while serving their country. Courtesy of the Woody Williams Foundation
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