It was one of the first community events held since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, and it didn’t disappoint as a crowd of roughly 400-500 attended the Muscatine County Freedom Rock dedication in downtown Wilton Sept. 6.
The rock is located near the historic Wilton Depot at the intersection of Maurer and Railroad streets. Portions of the roads were closed for folks to gather for a ceremony planned around the rock’s unveiling.
Organized primarily by Ted Marolf, a Wilton city council member, and member of the freedom rock committee, Hy-Vee’s Tony Loconsole served as the event’s emcee and presentation of the colors was done by the award-winning Durant American Legion Post 430 color guard. Members from Wilton Legion Post 584, West Liberty Legion Post 509 and Muscatine Legion Post 27 were recognized. Also present were members of Wilton Legion Auxiliary Unit 584, West Liberty Legion Auxiliary Unit 509 and Muscatine Legion Auxiliary Unit 27.
The Iowa Interstate Railroad supplied a locomotive as a backdrop for the event. The River City 6 band played from the shelter in Elder Park. The Wilton Candy Kitchen and SweetScapes Custom Cakes supplied treats afterward, and there were a few food vendors downtown as well. Tom Zeleny gave the invocation.
Local Wilton Boy Scouts led the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and Luke Thompson sang the National Anthem. Becky Hansen read a poem acknowledging gold star families.
Guest speakers included Wilton’s Jeff Kaufmann, a former state representative who teaches history at Muscatine Community College, and currently the state chair of the Iowa Republican Party. Local state Sen. Zach Wahls (D-Coralville) and state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann (R-Wilton) also spoke. Freedom Rock artist Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II was also present and addressed the crowd. The final speaker was Wilton’s own Rear Admiral Will Pennington of the U.S. Navy.
Jeff Kaufmann gave a speech full of passion. “I wish you could stand here and see what I see,” he said while looking out onto the crowd. “It doesn’t get any better than this. There are no Republicans or Democrats today. There are no divisions today. All of Muscatine County stands together and says, ‘We are proud of our heroes.’”
Jeff said he was filled with memories, sharing some stories of veterans from Muscatine County. There were more than 500 commemorative bricks sold, and placed at the Freedom Rock Site. “Every other brick is someone whose voice I hear. That’s the beauty of places like this,” Jeff continued. “Every single person on these bricks is remembered. They are our heroes. We remember. We tell their stories. I’m the proud son of a World War II veteran who is 95 and his health is fading. But I’ll forever tell his story. We overuse the word hero, but these are heroes. They are our Muscatine County heroes.”
Sen. Wahls, 29, said that while he’s still young, he’s been living through the longest war in American history, noting how the world changed forever on 9/11. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, he said America has a new generation of heroes at home — healthcare workers.
Bobby Kaufmann, a seventh generation Wilton resident, said it was an honor to be in his hometown to help dedicate the rock. “This rock is a symbol for those who served and are no longer with us, and for those who serve today. They made the sacrifice knowingly, and many are from Muscatine County … every time you drive or walk by this rock, remember them for their service.”
Artist Bubba Sorensen said he was currently working on rock No. 93 in Fayette. He said he paints “Old Glory” atop every Freedom Rock. The Muscatine County rock depicts a rear admiral saluting on an aircraft carrier, poppies, a soldier using a flamethrower, and a tail gunner — each representing stories from Muscatine County.
Will Pennington closed the dedication by saying it was good to be home in Wilton. His decorated military career has taken him around the world as a Navy pilot, and he’s commanded several ships, including an aircraft carrier named for George H.W. Bush. He read several quotes from President H.W. Bush in his remarks.
“We have a generation of folks who think freedom is their God-given right. That’s not true,” he said, noting that freedom is always a generation away from not being guaranteed.
Pennington is a 1985 Wilton High School grad. He called his longstanding military career the best job in the world in an interview later with the Advocate News. He did four years of training and has spent the last 31 and 1/2 in the Navy.
“It’s neat to see how beautiful downtown Wilton is, and it’s neat to see this add to that. When I was a little kid in this town, I was just hoping not to go to jail. I went to the Naval academy and the plan was to get my education paid for and get a job, fly a bit, then come home. I got to the end of that, stayed in, and haven’t really gotten to that last phase yet.”
After addressing the crowd, Pennington had the pleasure of directing the local Scouts to take the sheet off the rock, unveiling it to the crowd.
Melissa Marolf sang “America the Beautiful.” Then all veterans were invited to the rock site for an all-veteran photo opportunity. Dozens of veterans filed onto the site and surrounded the rock for a memorable moment, photographed by many in attendance.