By Kyla Hurt
Set the scene.
Ralph and Ed.
Up until that time, Ralph Johnson had farmed. Earlier that year, he turned over the farm to his son, allowing him some free time. On this particular day, a bit of that time was spent with his friend and Honor Guard Commander Ed Witham, talking over coffee at McDonald’s in Jacksonville. During their conversing, Witham mentioned the difficulties the group was having at securing people to help with funerals. Johnson’s recalls: “I said I had time now and so I began.” It was as easy as that – Johnson joined and would ultimately retire from his own position as Honor Guard Commander Ralph Johnson at the end of 2017.
The Honor Guard is the Combined Veterans Ceremonial Team. Johnson explained the adjustment to a “combined” guard because “we were losing members who could serve on the Honor Guard, so we put out the word to other Veteran organizations in other towns and villages like Franklin, Murrayville and Woodson, and they answered the call. We have 20-22 people signed up to serve … (we) need that many because not everyone can serve any day, so want to make sure we have enough when called.”
Having the additional Veterans available is of great importance as a primary the duty of the Honor Guard is to serve at funerals, so to “have enough when called” equates to Commander Ralph Johnson having an assurance that there would be the resources of Veterans who are willing to serve on funeral detail when called, likewise allowing the deceased to be honorably lauded and eloquently recognize he or she in this burial rite for service to the United States of America.
Johnson notes the sustained appreciation of the Honor Guard from families over the years, estimating that he has served as funeral detail for roughly 1,000 funerals. One of note lent a different mood mentions Johnson, noting that, “They always say ‘when the call was heard, (insert name) answered.’” Yet, for this particular service, the widow spoke her mind, saying “very loudly, ‘He was drafted.’” Albeit an emotional and uncensored statement which could conceivably cause pause, Johnson nonetheless thought that she was still appreciative of the Honor Guard’s presence at the service.
There are additional duties handled by the Honor Guard, which include flag raisings at nursery homes and skits at Knollwood, Commander Johnson notes as examples. The group is something special. They sport matching uniforms comprised of navy trousers, a white shirt, dark shoes and the Honor Guard jacket with the logo on it. Or, at times when it is especially cold, the guard has hooded sweatshirts to add. The logo or emblem used for the guard group was designed mutually with input from the whole group, explains Johnson; it has a casket, flag and cross on it. Though she has since passed, a woman named VanWinkel, located near the Morgan/Macoupin line was a seamstress who sewed the emblems directly onto the jackets, added Johnson.
It is in this manner that you will find these men, voluntarily standing at parade rest in their matching uniforms, and then snapping to attention. In many ways, they may be a crucial part of any service. From a past read, something similar to the following is my own recollection of a commendable description of any Honor Guard:
These volunteers provide a silent counterpoint to special speakers and aircraft flyovers, as intrinsic to the day as the snap of American flags in the breeze. They are seen in various parades, full of pride, marching and bearing their beloved flag. Though they no longer march as sprightly as when they marched in boot camp, or marched into combat. But their pride is still evident. Notedly, it is perhaps their presence at the funerals of those soldiers who have departed this earth that their services are most required. Pulled verbatim, “As their comrades in arms are laid to rest, these volunteers serve as a final, visual reminder of the duty to country and honor for the life that once saw service to a nation.”
They are an extension of honor … a presence by those who wish to show their respects and moreover, fellow Veterans who can be consoled knowing that when the day comes, members of the Honor Guard at that time will step forward for them, and stand in tribute of their services.
Honor Guard Commander Johnson states of his retirement, “I was commander for 15 years. I am proud to have served for all those years. As you get older, your balance isn’t as good. I have my reasons and health and age. I said at my retirement party, ‘There is a time for everything and this is my time.’ I gave a year notice of my retirement and Steve Scott is now running the Honor Guard with the help from everyone, of course.”
As a final salute to him for those 15 years, Honor Guard Commander Ralph Johnson was the distinguished honoree of a dinner and social evening spent recognizing his time and work and consequential retirement from his position as commander. During the evening, members shared their own words about Johnson:
Hello Ralph: You are the epitome of professionalism as Commander of our group. I have been proud to be a part of our services. Always enjoyed the trips and I can’t remember that you have ever scared me. Your friend, Herschel Carriger
Dear Commander: It has been an honor and privilege to work with you. I have learned a lot about how to conduct a group. You are the best. Good luck in the future. — Joe Buchanan
Commander Ralph: It has been a pleasure to work with you and the Color Guard. I can proudly attest to you … they are all conducted with great honor for our comrades in arms. — Dick Snodgrass
Being a new member I have enjoyed working with Ralph and the gang. See you again! — Don More
Ralph is very good to work with and work for on the military funeral detail. — Carl May
Ralph has dedicated years to serving the Veterans and their families in the area. What a great leader and a legacy. — Jim Carleton
Ralph, it’s been an honor and pleasure to serve under your leadership. Good luck to you in the future and I’ll see you for coffee at the V.F.W. — Leroy Garrison
Ralph is the mortar that holds these lose bricks together. — Bruce McDaniel
Ralph made everything happen on the detail for years. — Larry Preston
An excellent leader always respectful of the families we serve. — Frank Wildhagen
Ralph, thank you for everything you do. It’s been an honor to serve with you. — Becky Carrol
Ralph, we have made several trips together over the years. Good luck. — Paul Chaudoin
I’ve known of Ralph for several years through his leadership role in the Lions Club. I’ve always had great respect for his leadership abilities. — Bill Gibson
Best of luck in retirement (if he can find the time to retire)! — Bob Hamby
Who is that? — Tom Holmes
Congratulations, Ralph, in your retirement. You have done an excellent job as commander. We’ll miss you. — Bob Stewart
Thanks so very much for your many years of faithful and dedicated service!! Best wishes in retirement. — Joy Wood
Ralph, you will be missed greatly. I enjoyed my time helping you out. Thanks for your service. — Roger Houston
I have known Ralph for over 40 years; he is almost like family. We have worked together in three different clubs/organizations (Lions Club, American Legion and the Guard). He has revealed himself to be honest, hardworking, thoughtful and compassionate, with an emphasis on faith, family and community. Although we may differ somewhat on our political views, we agree on many of the core values. I consider him to be a friend, a man of his word, a fellow patriot with a strong sense of duty and tradition. He has always led, by example, and has been reliable and dedicated to any task he has been assigned. — Steve Scott