Flags fly in memory of heroes

The committee behind the memorial to local fallen heroes salutes its completion on a bright, crisp, cool day.COLLEEN JENKINS
Published December 13, 2003
 

CRYSTAL RIVER - It was the moment Pete DeRosa and the Fallen Heroes committee had been waiting for.

The sky was clear blue and the air had just the slightest chill. The chairs set out for guests were filled and plenty more people stood on the lawn of Bicentennial Park.

"Oh say can you see," crooned a man's voice from a played recording of the national anthem.

Pairs of men from the American Legion Post 155 - their hair gray and white, some shoulders stooped and other waists rounded - tugged quickly on ropes and hoisted six flags. First, the Army flag. Then, flags bearing the emblems of the Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, Marine Corps and Navy.

And finally, after some fumbling, the blue Air Force flag joined its brothers, linked by an American and prisoner of war flag in between.

Minutes later, DeRosa and Fred Bunts pulled a white sheet off the dedication ceremony's centerpiece: a slender granite structure bearing the names of the 59 Citrus County residents who have died in military service to the United States.

"The dream has come true," DeRosa said after the ceremony.

DeRosa, who had several family members serve and die in war, was credited at Friday's Fallen Heroes memorial dedication as the visionary behind the effort to honor local soldiers who lost their lives in battle.

War is inherently filled with hardship, a notion not lost on the Fallen Heroes group as it struggled in recent months to have its goal realized. The monument initially was slated for the city of Crystal River's Little Springs Park, adjacent to City Hall.

The Crystal River City Council approved the memorial in September but not without contention over the project's seven-flag design. The city's flag ordinance allows only four flags per property, meaning the group needed a special exemption to preserve their design.

But in October, the council voted 3-2 against altering the flag ordinance. The Fallen Heroes group decided if it couldn't erect the memorial as designed, it wouldn't build it at all within the city limits.

The organization turned to the county, which quickly approved a plan to build the memorial in Bicentennial Park, just south of Crystal River city limits.

In about five weeks, county workers cleared a wooded spot and volunteer contractors poured cement and installed the memorial's pieces. The organization collected more than $25,000 to pay for the memorial.

Still to come are benches, landscaping and tile blocks that will feature the names of 40 donors who gave more than $500 each to the cause, said group spokesman Keith Taylor.

At the dedication late Friday morning, organizers agreed they made the right decision in moving the monument's location and keep their design intact. The six military flags flying atop tall poles evoked pride for veterans of each branch of the armed forces, they said.

Retired Col. Curt Ebitz, the event's guest speaker, explained how flags had for centuries marked hallowed ground.

During battle, he said, flags served as "beacons to rally combat forces amidst the fog of war and the chaos of organized violence."

But the dedication speakers also emphasized that the memorial was about much more than flags or names chiseled into rock. It was about the people who didn't live to be recognized for their sacrifice.

"Who were these fallen sons?" Ebitz asked. "The answer is clear and indisputable. They were American patriots. They were freedom's guardians. They were uncommon heroes.

"They valued life," he said, "but cherished our American way of life far more."

- Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303
or cjenkins@sptimes.com© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times.
 All rights reserved.

American Dream - By Steve Arthur 

Longtime Citrus County resident and community activist Pete De Rosa has been selected as the Chronicle's 2003 Citizen of the Year. De Rosa most recently organized a community effort to erect a war memorial near Crystal River to honor local soldiers who have died in the line of duty. The recently dedicated memorial is located at the entrance to Bicentennial Park. 

Activist Pete De Rosa is the Chronicle's 2003 Citizen of the Year

Some people dream and some people do; Crystal River businessman and developer Pete De Rosa does them both. De Rosa has been named by the editorial board of the Citrus County Chronicle as its 2003 Citizen of the Year.

De Rosa, who grew up in Italy during and after World War II, emigrated from his home near Naples in 1950 as a young man full of energy and ambition. He says that when he looked around at the abundance of business opportunities in America, he rolled up his sleeves and eagerly set to work to take advantage of those opportunities.

He came to America as the representative of an Italian candy manufacturer, but he soon branched out into buying and selling whatever he could buy cheap and sell at a profit. For a while he had his own shop. He says he worked hard and labored long hours. "I worked so hard I had a heart attack," he said. "But after some time I got back working." He shrugged off suggestions from friends to go on welfare because of his heart problems.

"If I wanted to sit back, I could have stayed in Italy," he says with a grin. Imbued with an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit, he admits he had no taste for working for others as an employee.

He says he doesn't like investing in the stock market, but land is another matter. Land, he says, holds it value while stocks can disappear like the flame in a candle.

With sharp business acumen and shrewd but sometimes risky investments, he says, with the support of his late wife, Bruna, he became economically successful.

When he moved to Citrus County from Islip, N.Y., almost 30 years ago, he immediately saw the inevitability of growth along the Gulf Coast and invested in land north of Crystal River. Part of that land is now a development called De Rosa Village off County Road 495. He sold his building sites by traveling north to visit in the homes of potential buyers, convincing them personally to come live here. And they came.

In those years, he saw the need for a hospital and set to work to organize community leaders to make a hospital happen. In 1972, he was appointed as chairman of the hospital planning board for Seven Rivers Community Hospital and in 1974 he was instrumental in getting a state-required certificate of need for the hospital. As that dream became a reality, he shepherded it along, serving on the board of directors and advisory board for many years. He saw the need to have trained medical personnel to work at that hospital and he organized a foundation that would provide scholarships for training nurses and other medical workers. For ten years he served as chairman of the Seven Rivers Medical Education Foundation. The foundation has raised more than a quarter million dollars in private contributions to provide scholarships to 300 Citrus County residents to pursue medical careers.

He saw the need for fire protection in his northwest corner of the county. In 1973 he organized the De Rosa Fire Department. He donated land for the firehouse. He was fire chief for two years and a volunteer for over a decade. He was a county fire commissioner for seven years.


He's a charter member of the Crystal River Rotary Club too, and his friends say he is something of a legend for never having missed a Rotary meeting. His friends say he has helped many others in less public ways too, among them having promoted many charity drives in the community over the years.

He has also served as the president of the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce and in 1999 was given the Rick Quinn Distinguished Citizen Award for his work with the chamber.

Most recently De Rosa and Fred Bunts put together a committee to raise funds to build the Fallen Heroes Memorial that has found a home at Bicentennial Park in Crystal River. Working together with Keith Taylor, Pat Fitzpatrick, J. Paul Cash and Patty Silvey, they put the $25,000 project together. He says he is most proud of this project, which he says mirrors one he built many years ago on property he owned in Islip, on Long Island.

Those who have worked with De Rosa say he has a kind of determination and energy that makes things happen. Attorney Keith Taylor described Pete De Rosa as a passionate man with visions, and all for the betterment of his community. "Lots of people have ideas and visions but he makes his visions become real," Taylor said. Curtis Rich, a fellow Rotarian and former mayor of Crystal River, described De Rosa as a "gold certificate asset to our community. ""He's very forceful but not to the point of irritation - he knows how to approach people. He knows how to read people and when you read him, you see he is very dedicated to whatever he does. You know that if he's involved, he's going to get it done."

Chronicle Publisher Gerry Mulligan agrees: "If there is one man responsible for the construction of Seven Rivers Community Hospital (its former name) it is Pete De Rosa. All sorts of people told him the hospital would never be built, but you got the feeling he didn't understand the language. He saw a need for medical services on the west side of the county and he kept pushing it until the hospital was constructed."

"No one loves Crystal River like Pete does," says Sun Trust banker Patty Silvey. "You can always count on Pete whether its taking gate receipts at the Manatee Festival or helping kids to shop at the Rotary Christmas.

"Lots of people talk about doing things but Pete gets them done. He's a man of action with a heart as big as they come," she said

Citrus County Fallen Heroes Monument

A monument on hallowed ground paying eternal respect to the Fallen Heroes of Citrus County

Paths cross for 2 of our top citizens
By Gerry Mulligan

A sad and appropriate circle was completed today.

In today's Chronicle, we give recognition to Aaron Weaver as our 2004 Citizen of the Year.

Aaron was the Citrus High School graduate who was killed one year ago this weekend while serving his country in Iraq. Aaron was a true American hero.

One year ago this week we recognized our Citizen of the Year for 2003 — Pete De Rosa of Crystal River. In the summer of 2004, Pete died after a long struggle with cancer and heart disease. Pete was also a true American hero.

Pete De Rosa and Aaron Weaver never met — but they were tied together by their histories and the love of both this county and country.

Pete's story was unusual. He was a native of Italy who first moved to New York and later relocated to Citrus County. Over a four-decade period Pete became a lovable civic leader on the west side of the county. He helped get Seven Rivers hospital built, founded the local Rotary Club, served as the chamber president and developed a community that has his name.

He was in the news in 2003 because he was the founder and spirit behind the construction of the Fallen Heroes Memorial at Bicentennial Park in Crystal River. Pete dreamed up the idea of this war memorial because he wanted to make sure we never forgot those local residents who died while fighting wars in foreign countries. The names of every county resident who died while fighting on a battlefield were etched into the marble monument. The names date back to the Civil War.

The monument made extraordinary news because the blockheads on the Crystal River City Council wouldn't let it be built in the park next to City Hall because the memorial design included seven flags. The city had rules that only permitted three flags. Nothing like getting hung up on the big stuff.

These incredible young men gave their lives for their country and the city wouldn't honor them because of the number of flags. Pete knew he was dying so his committee switched gears and worked to get the memorial built at the county's Bicentennial Park — which was conveniently located just south of the city's boundaries. The county didn't have a problem with the seven flags.

While the committee raised $30,000 in private contributions, work was hurried along so Pete could see the final effort before he passed.

The memorial was finished in late 2003. An incredible tragedy took place in January of 2004. That was when Aaron Weaver and eight other Americans were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

The irony was Aaron wasn't flying the helicopter; he was a passenger following orders that he get a checkup as part of his own cancer treatment. You see, Aaron really shouldn't have been in Iraq. He had already survived close encounters with death on two occasions.

His first brush took place while he was piloting his own helicopter in Mogadishu, Somalia, where he was trying to rescue U.S. troops that had been ambushed and killed in that war-torn country. His helicopter was shot to pieces, but he somehow managed to survive. The exploits of Aaron and his fellow pilots were later documented in the popular movie "Black Hawk Down."

Mike Weaver, Aaron's dad, has worked at the Chronicle for the last two decades so there's much emotion with this story. When Aaron returned from the service after the Somalia incident he met Nancy Gallagher, the head of the Chronicle's customer service department. They fell in love and got married.

Aaron's second brush with death came shortly after his marriage to Nancy. He came down with cancer and almost died. It took months of exhaustive treatment, but he survived. One of the side effects was that he was told he could never have children. About a year later Aaron and Nancy had a baby girl. You just couldn't keep the kid down.

Because of the cancer, Aaron shouldn't have been in Iraq. He volunteered and had to sign a waiver to go and fight for his country. On the day he died he was going for a checkup to make sure the cancer was still in remission.

Shortly after Aaron was killed, Pete DeRosa got out of his hospital bed to go visit the war memorial at Bicentennial Park. I met Pete at the memorial with Mike Weaver and some of the members of the Fallen Heroes committee. We all stood in silence as a worker engraved Aaron's name into Pete's Fallen Heroes Memorial. Aaron's dad and Pete shared some tears that day. So did I.

Pete is buried today at the cemetery across from the National Guard Armory. If you stand at his grave, you can see the tops of the seven flagpoles at the county park. They look terrific.

Pete DeRosa — our 2003 Citizen of the Year — and Aaron Weaver — our 2004 Citizen of the Year — came at it from totally different directions. Aaron deserves the recognition because he courageously defended our nation and our way of life. Pete deserves the recognition because he expended so much energy to give recognition to people like Aaron.

There were plenty of differences between them, but they had one thing in common. Both were American heroes.

Gerry Mulligan is the publisher of the Chronicle. His e-mail address is gmulligan@chronicleonline.com