NC State Honors Veterans in a Big Belltower Way
Each year, NC State honors the men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces by holding a special ceremony on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. The 2021 event, hosted by the university’s Jeffrey Wright Military and Veteran Services and the Army ROTC program, included a sunrise 5K around campus followed by a special gathering outside the Memorial Belltower.
This Veterans Day also commemorated the 100th anniversary of the laying of the Belltower’s cornerstone.
The 5K kicked off at 6 a.m. and was followed by the ceremony at 7 a.m. Nick Drake, director of Military and Veteran Services, a U.S. Army Reserve veteran and a current member of the North Carolina Army National Guard, opened the event with a brief welcome. He was followed by the presentation of the nation’s colors by the Color Guard and the performance of the National Anthem.
Ret. Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger (U.S. Army) not only made remarks as a guest speaker during the ceremony but also participated in the 5K beforehand. He was then followed by Dr. Tom Stafford, former NC State vice chancellor for student affairs, who shared a brief history of the Memorial Belltower.
Cara Gentile, chair of Raleigh Sister Cities’ Compiègne Committee, then presented a wreath and a special vase from Compiègne, France. Each year, representatives in Raleigh and Compiègne present the other city with wreaths commemorating the end of World War I in a gesture of peace and good will. Compiègne is more than just a sister city of Raleigh, though; it was the site of the armistice signing that officially ended World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
The wooden vase was handcrafted to hold the red poppies, flowers that are often used around the world to symbolize remembrance for fallen soldiers, that were later placed at the door to the Belltower’s Shrine Room. The Belltower itself was erected to pay tribute to NC State alumni who died while serving in the U.S. military during World War I, with the tower’s Shrine Room containing a plaque with their names engraved.
Army Cadet Kendall Lydon offered an especially moving tribute to her late brother, who served in the military and inspired her to enlist. The ceremony then ended with a playing of “Amazing Grace” by members of the NC State Pipes and Drums, a traditional Scottish bagpipe band established in 1968.
This year’s Veterans Day event was special for many reasons beyond the annual 5K and Belltower ceremony. For one, NC State’s Military and Veteran Services was recently renamed. The program was created in November 2016 to provide a variety of services to NC State’s discharged and retired veterans, active-duty military, members of the National Guard and Reserve components, spouses and dependents of military and veterans, and Gold Star family members. It became Jeffrey Wright Military and Veteran Services earlier this month in honor of an extraordinary gift from alumnus, veteran and NC State University Foundation Board member Jeff Wright, along with his wife, Kelly Breslin Wright.
Marking a century since the Belltower’s cornerstone was dedicated also made the day special. As Stafford reminded the attendees, the Belltower is, first and foremost, a military memorial honoring alumni who died while serving their country. Construction began on the memorial in 1921 but was halted several times over the following decades as money for the project ran out and global events such as the Great Depression and World War II took precedence.
The Belltower was “completed” and formally dedicated in 1949, but real bells were not added until last year as part of a historic renovation and restoration process. The site was rededicated in May 2021 as the Memorial Belltower at Henry Square in honor of a gift from the Bill and Frances Henry family that made the transformation possible.
The events of Nov. 11 were only part of NC State’s Veterans “Day” remembrances. The university honored service members throughout the week via the Court of North Carolina, which is annually covered with one American flag for each member of the Pack who has served in a branch of the military. These flags typically total more than 1,000 per year.
Members of NC State’s various ROTC programs also stood guard at the Memorial Belltower throughout the night of Nov. 11 and into the next morning, a tradition that traces its roots back several decades.