As we observe Memorial Day, we look back at the origins of The Veterans Memorial Park of The Villages.
The year was 1998 and The Villages already was home to veterans of many different eras, wars and conflicts.
And the more those veterans came to Florida’s Friendliest Hometown, the more they realized they needed a place to hold ceremonies on occasions such as Memorial Day, July 4 and Veterans Day, to name a few.
Villages lore has it that the late Frank Mezzatesta and Harold Sievers decided to take the matter into their own hands. Mezzatesta had served in the Army Air Corps aboard a B-24 Liberator and was taken as a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down over Germany. And Sievers, who served in the Air Force, was a veteran of the Korean War.
Lore has it that the two veterans went to speak with the Morse family about the idea and easily won their approval for The Veterans Memorial Park of The Villages to become a reality.
Mezzatesta was soon shown the strip of land where the park would be constructed, which is located just off Main Street in Spanish Springs at Paige Place and Lake Miramar. And he was thrilled to be given such a big piece of property for the memorial park, which also sits near the mouth of the golf cart bridge that crosses over U.S. Hwy. 27/441.
Sharon Morse, who was married to Villages Developer H. Gary Morse and oversaw design development of the retirement community, designed the park. Money was raised to help pay for the venture through the sales of bricks in memory of or honoring veterans of all eras – some dating back to the Revolutionary War. Some bricks also honored members of the Morse/Schwartz families and Mezzatesta as the park’s founder.
The first event held at the park came on July 4, 1998, when ground was officially broken for the venture. Sharon Morse, who would lose her battle with cancer the following year, was the guest speaker at the special event.
The park’s official dedication ceremony appropriately came on Nov. 11, 1998 – Veterans Day. By then the huge granite monument that weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 27,000 pounds had been put in place. And the ceremony, which set the stage for future events at the park, paid homage to veterans of all branches of the military and included comments by two members of the Morse family.
“I’d just like to say that I’m proud to be an American and I want to thank each and every one of you for that pride and for the freedoms that I enjoy today,” said Tracy Morse, president of The Villages Foundation that administered the fundraising efforts for the park.
Her brother, Mark Morse, agreed.
“It’s a prideful day for our community and it’s an emotionally charged day for all of us,” he said. “Many people worked long and hard and waited patiently for this perfectly appropriate site. I couldn’t be prouder of the people in the veterans organizations who worked so closely with our construction and our design folks to make this thing a reality.”
Mezzatesta also offered his thoughts on the park. He said he started the effort because about two years earlier he and other former American POWs were outside a local grocery store distributing daisies when some teenagers asked him if POW stood for persons out of work.
“From that moment on I decided that I had to do something,” he said. “And as you can see now, I’ve done it.”
In 2003, The Veterans Memorial Park Board made the decision to add the Honor Guard. That unit is funded by the board and could be seen paying respects to servicemembers and veterans at ceremonies held at the park throughout the years.
The Villages Memorial Park Board also made it a point to become active in area schools to help students understand the importance of veterans and those active military servicemembers who selflessly give of themselves to protect the freedoms we all hold dear.
The outreach program, which Sievers was heavily involved with, started in the fall of 1999 at The Villages Elementary of Lady Lake and then moved into The Villages Charter Schools a couple of years later. The program’s goal to this day is to fill a “gap” in the educational process about veterans and what they mean to our country.
Memorial brick sales quickly became an all-important component in the success of the park. They continue to be sold throughout the year and provide an elegant and meaningful way for families and loved ones to honor veterans. And they are dedicated every year on Veterans Day.
Today, services are held throughout the year honoring veterans and law enforcement officers.
Large crowds of Villagers and area residents can be counted on to support each of those ceremonies. And as the community continues to grow to the south and younger veterans move here, it’s safe to say that higher levels of participation in The Veterans Memorial Park events will be the norm going forward.