Nothing should surprise me anymore.
Not even a decision that comes out of nowhere — after 32 years, no less — to change the formal name of one of Hopkinsville’s most cherished parks.
It’s likely not that big of a deal for most of the people who call Hopkinsville home nowadays. But, sorry, that’s not the case with me.
What just happened actually makes me kind of sad, only because it’s yet another example of decision-makers forgetting about the thoughts and intents of the heart that often are responsible for many of the actions of the past.
Undoing something important usually doesn’t sit well with me.
In the end, there’s always that chance that there will be a price to pay that involves much more than money.
As everybody knows by now, Fort Campbell Memorial Park — located at the interchange of Fort Campbell Boulevard and the parkway — had its name changed this month to Gander Memorial Park.
The 16-acre park — featuring a UH-1 Huey helicopter, a paved walking trail, and the lighted “Peacekeeper” statue sculpted by the late Hopkinsville artist Steve Shields — was dedicated and opened on September 28, 1986, as a tribute to the 248 Fort Campbell soldiers and eight crew members of an Arrow Air DC-8 jetliner who were killed nine months earlier in a tragic crash in Gander, Newfoundland.
At the time of the incident, shortly after a refueling stop, the soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) were on their way home for the Christmas holidays after a six-month peacekeeping mission in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
For 32 years, the park kept its original name without even so much as a peep from the public. That apparently changed not too long ago.
Hopkinsville City Council — acting at its Oct. 2 meeting — made the name change official when it routinely approved a municipal order that stated that the Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Committee and “many surviving family members” had requested the action to recognize and honor the lives of the Gander plane crash victims.
The matter received virtually no public attention until it was a done deal.
A chamber-sponsored groundbreaking ceremony for a new sign — which, when installed at a cost of around $14,500, will reflect the name change — took place at the park last Tuesday afternoon.
As a proud Army Brat who grew up on the Fort Campbell Army post, there’s been no park in all of Hopkinsville more special to me over the years.
The Gander tragedy, you see, deeply affected me, not only as a newspaper reporter assigned to cover the emotionally-charged story from start to finish but also as somebody with friends who were mourning loved ones under the most difficult of circumstances.
Now, although Hopkinsville’s remembrance of the Gander crash was christened Fort Campbell Memorial Park when it was developed all those years ago, it’s certainly true that nearly everybody in town has always informally referred to the memorial as Gander Park.
Maybe that was a factor in the decision to rename the park. The reason it took 32 years is anybody’s guess.
The park, for sure, was created in response to the overwhelming grief that the Gander tragedy caused in the community, and it definitely spotlights one of the worst air disasters in U.S. military history.
But, unless my memory fails me — sometimes it does, but not very often — there was a higher purpose in mind when it got around to the task of naming the new park the year after the deadly air crash.
The citizens of Hopkinsville and Christian County, in choosing a name, wanted to express their unwavering love and support for the Fort Campbell community by recognizing the sacrifices of all soldiers — past, present and future — assigned to the Army post during times of war and peace.
At the time of the park’s dedication in the fall of 1986 — with the late country music singer Johnny Cash on hand to recite his “Ragged Old Flag” poem — the program handed out to the crowd contained a few words that offered a hint of this noble intent:
“This memorial is in response to the desires of the citizens of Hopkinsville, Christian County and the Commonwealth of Kentucky to create something that will permanently express their concern for and interest in their Fort Campbell neighbors.”
Throughout its history, Fort Campbell and its soldiers have made great sacrifices. The men and women serving there answered the call of their country every time it mattered: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
There have been many heroes, too.
Lewis Millett, a retired Army colonel who passed away in California in 2009 at the age of 88, lost his 27-year-old son — Staff Sergeant John Morton Millett — in the Gander air tragedy.
As a young soldier, Colonel Millett received the Medal of Honor during the Korean War for leading the last major bayonet charge in American military history. Later, he served as an intelligence officer with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.
Somehow, there’s little doubt in my mind that the colonel’s son and other Gander heroes would have been proud to share, with fellow fort soldiers, the sacred ground in a park that kept an inclusive name that honored past, present and future Screaming Eagles everywhere.
And yet, the powers-that-be chose to ignore history and three decades of goodwill by changing the park’s name and making a place for a $14,500 sign that will now focus only on a single chapter of this community’s remarkable love affair with Fort Campbell.
That’s a price not worth paying — ever.
ROB DOLLAR was a reporter and editor for the Kentucky New Era for 20 years. A resident of Hopkinsville, he has authored three books on topics of local interest in recent years. He can be reached at email@example.com.