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VetsRoll stronger than ever a decade later as organizers eagerly await 2021 season

SOUTH BELOIT — A decade later, VetsRoll co-founder Mark Finnegan says he’s still in awe of the experiences his organization is able to offer military veterans as they make the trip of a lifetime to visit war memorials in the nation’s capital.

Finnegan founded VetsRoll in February of 2010 with brother John Finnegan as a way to honor their father, World War II Navy veteran Cy Finnegan, after his passing.

“In May of 2004, there was a military officer’s burial at Arlington Cemetery,” Finnegan said. “We saw the pageantry of an officer’s funeral and it got us thinking that we needed to memorialize our father and the rest of our family.”

After assisting on a fundraiser for a family featured on ABC TV’s “Extreme Home Makeover” in 2009, Finnegan said he knew he could build the infrastructure needed to launch his dream of honoring veterans.

“That was in the middle of the Great Recession and that told us that even though times were tough, if the cause is right, people will still support us,” Finnegan said.

In 2010, the Finnegan brothers raised enough money to take more than 125 veterans and a small horde of caregivers on a four-day trip to Washington, D.C.

“We saw the success of things like the Honor Flight program and we got to thinking about how we could build an experience for our veterans that’s more than a quick trip,” Finnegan said. “I figured after they threw us a big welcome home bash that I would go back to selling RVs, but my life was forever changed and the phone’s never stopped ringing.”

Fast forward to today and VetsRoll has provided the trip of a lifetime to nearly 2,000 veterans and women known affectionately as “Rosie the Riveters” to honor their work and sacrifices from World War II, the Korean War and onward.

Each year, VetsRoll takes a small army of volunteers, medical professionals and aides to see historic sites including the World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, Marine Corps Memorial and Arlington Cemetery.

“What keeps me going is the reaction of the veterans,” Finnegan said. “Some were never thanked for their service and some come up to you full of tears in their eyes. It’s all about the fulfillment and the closure. Each year is unique and everyone has a different experience. It’s hard to describe.”

Another special aspect of the trip is the heroes welcome they receive along the way, getting police and first responder escorts in various states and a final tribute motorcycle ride into Beloit at the Eclipse Center.

Due to COVID-19, VetsRoll was postponed this year, with the 2020 trip having over 200 veterans who had planned to make the special pilgrimage. Finnegan said the organization will honor all 2020 participants that are able to travel for the 2021 journey.

To honor the 2020 veterans scheduled to go on the trip, Finnegan and a number of VetsRoll volunteers placed over 200 American flags in Riverside Park.

“We hope this all gets back to normal and we can continue towards yet another year and we just know what the future is going to bring us,” Finnegan said. “The support has been overwhelming.”

The current eligibility age for veterans ranges from 1966 or earlier, with a waiting list from those between the years of 1967 and later.

“It’s a great feeling knowing they are getting a trip of a lifetime,” Finnegan said.

Beloit businesses re-opening, Illinoisans arriving

BELOIT — It was a good day for Andrea Stevenson and Julie Ennett of Rockton. It was their first outing to a restaurant in a month, and they chose The Rock Bar and Grill, 101 Maple Ave. So did four other diners from Illinois who asked to remain anonymous.

“I picked up a friend and headed right here,” Stevenson said of her outing.

After lunch, Stevenson was going to mow the lawn and go to Rockton Walmart where her daughter, a Hononegah graduate, would be wearing a cap and gown in an afternoon event for student employees. By nightfall, she would go to Jersey’s Bar & Grill, 2770 Milwaukee Road to celebrate.

Although restaurants in Illinois are still closed for dining inside, Beloit’s dining rooms opened on Thursday as businesses across the city were in various stages of reopening.

Jim Agate, co-owner of The Rock, said he had brought back all employees Thursday for inside dining. The restaurant only offered curbside pickup since the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up. Although he and co-owner Bill Lock have opened restaurants together over the years, Agate said this reopening was a new challenge. Not only were staff in masks and gloves, but tables were distanced and surfaces had to go through a two-part disinfection process in between diners.

Because the county’s recommendation is 25% occupancy, and the city is requiring 6 feet between employees and customers, restaurants like the Rock could only have 30 customers at one time inside. The plan for The Rock is to accommodate more diners outside.

Agate said there were eight customers in the first hour-and-a-half on Thursday, with people being cautious.

“It’s not a crazy bar scene,” Agate said. “This is going to be a gradual process.”

Matt Grajevci, owner of West Side Family Restaurant, 530 W Grand Ave., said he first heard the news the restaurant could reopen for dining on Wednesday.

“We need at least a few days. We have to clean everything, bring in the food from the company, and prepare it. We can not just open. The place is not ready. For the restaurants, they need at least one week,” he said.

Grajevci had to shut down his restaurant as the carry-out business was not enough to pay his bills. With regulations limiting capacity to 25%, he said it will be difficult to keep the business going.

Nikkie Chadwick, owner of Walnut Creek Apparel & Gifts, 406 E. Grand Ave., said she had first opened the showroom last week for up to five customers. One of the business’s biggest sellers has been Cubs and Bears face masks, purchased from Illinois customers.

“Seventy-five to 80% of customers have been from Illinois,” she said. “One couple came from Chicago.”

Chadwick said her business continued during the shutdown as it provided employee badges for the health system and police department, apparel for workers at two food manufacturers and death tags for a funeral home. The business also offered curbside pickup.

Despite remaining open, 80% of business dropped. There will be permanent losses as many events the business makes awards for were cancelled this year.

To help boost business, Chadwick had been selling “We Are All In This Together” T-shirts. She said the community stepped up, purchasing almost 1,000 of them.

“Beloit takes care of its own,” she said.

Chadwick said many customers will continue with curbside pickup to stay safe. It has taken some adjustment as customers call for a shirt or cutting board and Chadwick must send them pictures of the store’s offerings. However, Chadwick said customers really appreciate the effort and are doing their best to support the business

At House of Lexx Tattoo & Piercings, 524 E. Grand Ave., owner Lexx Valadez said he will reopen Tuesday at noon.

“We have appointments set, and we are going to be pretty busy for a while,” Valadez said.

Valadez said stations are more than 6 feet apart, tattoo artists will be masked and gloved and the business will be continuously disinfected. Although he is glad to be re-opening, he said he believes the business could have kept open.

“We could have safely worked the whole time and not lost the income,” Valadez said.

Tom Morgan, owner of CheezHead Brewing, 414 and 416 Pleasant St., Beloit, said his business is offering smoked brats and picnic food on Friday. He was planning on setting up tables six feet apart outside and offering a bags game.

Editors note for Memorial Day package

EDITOR’S NOTE: Memorial Day normally is a time for parades and patriotism. Because of the pandemic most patriotic observances cannot be held. The Beloit Daily News wanted to help the community recognize and appreciate the enormous contributions and sacrifices by those who have worn the country’s uniform. This edition, including the list of deceased veterans on pages inside, is dedicated to the best of us, our brave men and women who have won and preserved American freedom over the generations.

Areas oldest veterans spend long lives appreciating freedom

BELOIT — Perhaps the most admirable duties undertaken by two of the area’s most senior World War II veterans was their life after their service. They had seen loss first hand and lived lives worthy of those sacrifices.

Whether singing while delivering the mail or dancing for all in the neighborhood, Clair Deitz, 101, and Marv Behling, 99, never squandered a minute of freedom and are still going. This summer Behling will turn 100 on June 10, and Dietz will turn 102 on Aug. 3.

Behling was drafted into the U.S. Army on Jan. 5, 1942 and enlisted in the Medical Corps. By 1943 he was working at a fieldhouse in North Africa with “500 men, 200 nurses and 60 doctors close to the German and Italian lines.”

As a “ward boy,” Behling would change sheets, bed pans and help the wounded into or out of their beds. He witnessed men with their legs and arms blown off, those rendered blind and others with their lives fading. He worked in North Africa for a year before shipping out to a hospital in Italy. It was there he recalled stumbling upon a class ring, although he couldn’t find the owner.

After being discharged on June 12, 1945, Behling came to Beloit. His family and future wife were working at Fairbanks Morse where he found work on the assembly line making magnetos, or small generators, for tractors and small engines. He would go on to work for Yates American Machine Company for another four decades.

Behling never talked much about his experiences or considered himself any kind of hero.

“I really hadn’t given it much thought. It was just something you had to do,” he said.

Behling’s father, Max Behling, had fought in World War I, and many years later, Behling’s son, Craig Behling, would serve in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam.

His daughter, Cheryl Carroll, recalled her parents’ jovial life, doing ballroom dances and attending barn dances.

“My dad liked to show off doing the cha cha,” Carroll said.

The Behlings loaded up the station wagon and would take the neighborhood kids water skiing, roller skating, and tobogganing. When the kids got older, the family took motorcycle trips together.

“This was the house to hang out. We’d come home and all the kids would be here hanging out with my parents” Carroll said.

Carroll said her father never spoke much about the war. He joined the American Legion, but didn’t always attend. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the war came up again, when the class ring found in the Italian hospital was rediscovered in a memory box. Because the ring appeared to have come from a Wilmington, North Carolina high school, the Behlings put an ad with the ring’s description in the community newspaper. The family was surprised to get a call from the ring’s owner and the Behlings drove down to meet him.

By 2011, Behling was finally ready to go on VetsRoll, an all expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. to see the war memorials. Today Behling lives with his daughter and his wife, Barbara, 92. The couple has been married for 72 years.

Dietz of South Beloit has been married to wife, Sylvia, for 63 years. He enlisted in the Signal Corps, a branch of the U.S. Army Air Corps, in World World II from 1942 to 1945 where he was a corporal. His brother-in-law died in the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in the beginning of the war.

Despite the hard times, Dietz’s wife Sylvia said her husband enjoyed serving. In the Signal Corps, he was dispatched to Dutch East New Guinea in 1944.

“There are pictures of him on a telephone pole,” she said.

At the end of the war he went to the Philippines and finally to Japan after the surrender.

After Dietz got out of the service he went on to work at the South Beloit Post Office and was known as the “singing mailman” and serenaded audiences on a radio broadcast put out by the Peoples Church in Beloit. Clair and his wife volunteered to sing for more than 30 years at Fair Oaks Nursing home in South Beloit. Years later he acted out “deceptive trader” in the Journey to Bethlehem Nativity at Heritage baptist church in Roscoe each year.

“He’d pretend to steal stuff and tell them a big long story. He loved doing that,” his wife said.

As a member of the Fellowship of Christian magicians, the couple would perform at libraries, schools and churches. It wasn’t uncommon for Dietz to make his doves emerge from balloons.

“We had a couple of doves for years, and he has a flaming sword,” Sylvia said.

He remained active for years.

“When he was 71, he did a handstand on a beach in South Carolina,” his wife said.

Sylvia accompanied her husband on the VetsRoll 2013 trip where she recalled him leading the bus in the song, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.”

Heritage Baptist Church threw him a big birthday party for his 100th birthday and last year, during his 101st birthday, he was honored by Rockton Barber Paul Grossen who dedicated his last career’s haircut to Dietz.

No newspaper on Monday

In observance of the Memorial Day holiday the Beloit Daily News will not be published on Monday.

Persons wishing to drop news items off may do by so using the mail slot at the entrance to the Daily News building, located at 149 State St.