Veterans appreciation event is special evening for many

Published 12:10 am Thursday, June 27, 2024

SALISBURY — “A Night at the Park” was a night to celebrate and honor, enjoy softball and food and fellowship with one another.

While the June 24 event was a scheduled American Legion Ladies Fast Pitch Softball game against the Davidson Seniors team, it was much more.

Held at Whitley Softball Field on the Catawba College campus, this was their annual Veterans Appreciation Night during which time veterans come and are recognized and celebrated.

Prior to the game, the veterans were escorted out onto the field by the girls on both teams. Their name, rank, branch of service and the war in which they served were all announced, and when all had assembled on the field, honor guard members Commander Tom Duncan, Lewis Reid, Bob Price, Andy Andrews and Jeff Vail presented the colors followed by the singing of the national anthem.

This night is a “super special opportunity for our girls to understand the sacrifices that these men and women have made for us,” said Allie Lyerly, coach of the Rowan American Legion Post 342 Ladies Softball team. “And it’s a great opportunity to shake the veterans’ hand and thank them for what they’ve done for us.”

The team members had gone out to a veterans breakfast to issue a special invitation for them to attend, and they made sure to welcome them during the evening, said Josie Blong, who serves as a volunteer to help with the event.

On this particular night, Vietnam veteran Cecil Whitley was given the honor of throwing out the first pitch, and it was especially meaningful as the one catching the ball was his granddaughter Blakley Gantt.

Cecil’s wife Nan said doing this meant a lot to him.

The veteran who was to have originally thrown out the game’s first pitch was 97-year-old World War II veteran John Cauble; however, due to injuries he sustained from an accident, he was unable to be there.

Cauble and the Whitleys are neighbors they said, and Cecil was instrumental in helping get Cauble to throw out the first pitch, said Queen Williams, a veteran and member of the Post 342. “We had all that planned.”

However, plans had to change and Nan said she asked her husband, “do you want to throw it out?”

And his answer was, “I sure do.”

Stepping up and helping when needed is something that Cecil has done multiple times as he served his country in the military and leading soldiers in Vietnam and by serving his community.

And the family is no stranger to being around the baseball/softball field as Nan served as softball coach at Catawba College for 37 years, their son-in-law is the American Legion and Catawba baseball coach Jim Gantt, and their daughter played and Cecil, while he wasn’t able to play in college, helped with Parks and Recreation tournaments after he got his education and his law degree.

Being the one behind the plate was special to his granddaughter as well. After catching that first pitch, the two hugged, and Blakley said being able to do this “made me feel special. It made me feel happy. It made me feel like he really wanted me to be there for him to do that.”

Lyerly said watching him throw that pitch was super special for her two because she played for Nan at Catawba. So it was “super special to get to see him come out here and throw the first pitch.”

And it all happened on the field named after he and his wife, Williams noted.

The whole evening was special for the veterans as Cecil said “it’s an honor for all the veterans to be able to come. We wouldn’t have the freedom we have in our country were it not for the veterans.”

“Because of them, we can be out here celebrating tonight,” said Williams as she welcomed everyone.

This event was begun in 2017, which was the first year of Legion Ladies Softball, said Blong, whose father is on the American Legion softball board, her grandfather is Post 112 commander and her husband is a veteran.

Blong said this event is more than just a time to come out and play a softball game, but it’s an opportunity to instill community in the girls.

“They’re doing this for a bigger purpose,” she said. “They are a part of something bigger than just even the Rowan County community, but serving the veterans.” 

In addition to being recognized on the field, veterans were treated to a free barbecue dinner as they watched the game.

Being able to serve as sponsor for the recognition night was likewise special for Nazareth Child & Family Connection said Hugo Crigler, director of development at Nazareth, 

“It’s fantastic. It’s fantastic for the veterans. Everybody wants to do everything they can for the veterans because they mean so much to us. We at Nazareth, we feel that,” he said.