By LARRY C. BOWERS and RICK NORTON
Wednesday was “a great day for Cleveland,” proclaimed Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, as well as an array of program participants at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the state’s newest veterans home.
A capacity-plus crowd estimated at 500 to 600 attended the event at the construction site off Westland Drive in South Cleveland.
The staff of Tennessee Veterans Services Commissioner Courtney Rogers had planned for 200 to 300 attendees, but the festive crowd almost doubled that number. Still, there was plenty of assistance and personnel to handle the overflow which surrounded three sides of the giant tent and listened in from a distance.
Rogers was the emcee for the program, introducing a number of people not participating in the formal presentation. She also expressed thanks to local and state organizations and special groups.
Tennessee’s first-year governor expressed amazement in an impromptu press conference following the scheduled program, as to the ongoing support and partnerships involved in the 16-year journey which has resulted in the Bradley County Tennessee State Veterans Home.
Existing veteran facilities are located in Murfreesboro, Humboldt, Knoxville, and Clarksville. The $47 million facility here will be the fifth.
Lee said the veterans home here is an example of true partnerships on the local, state and federal levels.
“When people come together, as they have here in Cleveland, the needs and care of our veterans are met,” Lee added.
He then pointed to his appreciation for the long dedication to this project, including the funding, the $3 million anonymous donation, the gift of the land and continued involvement for more than a decade and a half by community, state, and federal organizations and agencies.
“We appreciate Tennessee’s veterans and we have endless gratitude for their service to our country,” Lee stressed. “We as a state are dedicated to supporting them throughout their lives and this is just one way we can give back to those who have given so much for us.”
Lee opened his remarks by saying he was privileged to attend the groundbreaking, and privileged to shake the hands of four Bradley County World War II veterans being recognized: Jack Murphy, Carl Zurcher, Joseph “Pinky” Blackburn and Ralph Painter. (See accompanying story).
“It’s a great day in Tennessee, in a great county,” Lee continued. He went on to say it was a great opportunity to honor great Americans, “… those who provided us the privilege of living in this great country.”
The governor pointed out the state has one-half million veterans, and 50,000 in the area. He said many will be able to take advantage of this nursing home facility.
“This is an opportunity for us to serve the men who served us,” he said.
The governor added that he is overwhelmed by the community’s commitment of over 16 years, the anonymous donation and the continued partnerships between community leaders, and state and federal officials.
A variety of speakers paralleled the governor’s theme, in acknowledging the day’s importance, and literally hundreds of partnerships which eventually brought the veterans home to Cleveland and Bradley County. U.S. Rep. Scott DeJarlais said, “Good things come to those who wait, and we’ve waited a long, long time.”
He also emphasized that much of the journey, in recent years, was a mystery in wondering why the facility had not been approved on the federal level.
“It finally happened, and that is what this is all about,” he said in conclusion, adding that it was a “historic moment.”
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, DesJarlais’ colleague in Congress, expressed his appreciation to all the project’s partners, and philanthropists.
“Everybody in Bradley County came together, at all levels,” Fleischmann said.
He also tossed out a little blame for some of the delay.
“The federal government was the big hold-up on this project,” he declared. “It was rumored I was the reason for the hold-up, and I had to come talk to the Bradley County Commission. I told them if there was an opportunity, we’d get it done. That’s what happened, and we never gave up. We all want to make a difference, we all want a legacy.”
State senators Mike Bell and Todd Gardenhire joined state Rep. Dan Howell in expressing pleasure that the groundbreaking had finally arrived.
“We’re finally going to have a facility here to serve those who served us,” Bell said.
Saying he is not a veteran, but he is the father of a veteran, Bell credited the teamwork of local advocates who worked in conjunction with local, state and federal government leaders.
“This was a team effort, and we need to be thankful for everybody,” added Gardenhire.
Gardenhire, whose 10th Senatorial District includes parts of Bradley and Hamilton counties, declared the veterans home will be a model for others to follow.
“This veterans home will be the ‘crown jewel’ of Southeast Tennessee, a complete teamwork of many individuals and organizations all working together for the good of our veterans,” Gardenhire said.
Howell, who accompanied Lee to a follow-up event at Benton Elementary School in Polk County, referred to an old Beatles song, “The Long And Winding Road,” in relationship to the effort of getting a veterans home here.
“Our community did not let this die,” he stressed.
The longtime legislator also pointed to the community’s resolve in staying the course.
“Sixteen years … that’s how long it’s taken to get to this point,” Howell said. “This groundbreaking ceremony is a testament to the courage, grit and perseverance of those who first had the vision of building a veterans home to serve the thousands of veterans within a 50-mile radius of Cleveland. I’m honored to be a part of it.”
State Rep. Mark Hall joined the tributes from his unique perspective. Hall was co-chairman of the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council prior to being elected to the Legislature. He has since handed the Council position (now vice chairman) to veteran Kim Dees.
“Today we’ve come full circle, from what was once an idea, and today becomes reality,” said Hall. “I’m here to honor the courage, pride, selflessness and integrity of all our veterans.”
Hall, and others, expressed deep appreciation to Cleveland veteran Cid Heidel who has served as the longtime co-chairman of the Council. Heidel was unable to attend Wednesday’s program, currently facing serious health issues at a Chattanooga care facility.
Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis, and Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks, also had a turn at the podium.
“It’s been 16 long years of hills and valleys, with three governors,” stated Davis.
Of the importance of the veterans home, the county mayor stressed, “These veterans have paid a price, which we can now repay.”
Davis also took the opportunity to introduce Bradley County Veterans Services Officer Brian Huesterberg, and former veteran officers Gary Benefield, Larry McDaris and Joe Davis.
Brooks, who was able to converse with a number of old friends and colleagues from when he was a state representative, opened with a reference to an old Red Back Hymnal song, “We’ve Come This Far By Faith.”
“It’s very appropriate for this groundbreaking,” he said.
The Cleveland mayor mentioned some veterans who have been instrumental in the long veterans home effort, including the late John Simmons, Bill Norwood and Stan Evans, as well as the ailing Cid Heidel.
He also voiced pride in the support of the Cleveland City Council, Mayor Emeritus Tom Rowland, and previous governor Bill Haslam, who allocated $10 million for the veterans home in his final budget.
Also making brief comments were Terry Lamb, financial advisor for the anonymous donors who provided an initial $3 million pledge, and Tennessee Veterans Home Board Executive Director Ed Harries.
“Our board and staff are eagerly awaiting the opening of the new Tennessee State Veterans Home after many years of determined community effort,” Harries said. “It is our privilege and our responsibility to provide exceptional care and support to those who honorably served our country. Soon we will be positioned to take care of the heroes of Southeast Tennessee.”
Although they did not have speaking roles, several other officials attended Wednesday’s ceremonies, including former governor Bill Haslam, as well as Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Tennessee Department of General Services Commissioner Christi Branscom.
“We’re extremely pleased to be managing the design and construction of this long-needed facility,” Branscom said. “Our real estate division has been involved in this project since its inception and we look forward to continued close collaboration with our colleagues in the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services and with the Tennessee State Veterans’ Home Board to ensure that this exciting project meets their needs for Tennessee’s veterans.”
Pastor Van Smith of West Cleveland Baptist Church gave the invocation, and the church provided extra parking.
City and county authorities were in charge of parking and traffic, and were assisted by students from Bradley Central High School’s Army JROTC and Cleveland High School’s Air Force JROTC.
In her remarks as emcee, Rogers offered thanks to a variety of departments and agencies, among them: Tennessee Department of General Services, Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration, Tennessee Department of Transportation, Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, Bradley County government staff, Cleveland city government staff, Lewis Group Architects, Steve Williams Construction, West Cleveland Baptist Church, American Legion Post 81 and American Legion Post 81 Ladies’ Auxiliary.
Construction will soon begin on the single-story, 108-bed intermediate and skilled care nursing facility consisting of six 18-bedroom residential houses that will span 110,000 square feet. Construction is estimated to be complete by summer 2021.