“Everybody needs a hero. John Wayne was mine. He set good examples for many people to follow. Anybody can be a hero. You need a hero to look up to so that you can try to be like that hero.”
Those words were spoken Monday by Ken Ackley, a local historian/volunteer in my hometown. He stood in the corner of my high school classroom and you could have heard a pin drop. All of my students listened as the older gentleman in the American Legion cap and bright blue vest read from his papers. He spoke of having no regrets, working hard, doing the right thing and helping others when needs arise. He has lived by that his whole life and has a whole family of people who do the same thing. If you need them, they are there, despite popular opinion or their busy schedules.
He talked about how Veterans are our heroes, too; he spoke of time spent away from their families. He spoke of the freedoms we all sometimes take for granted today. I thought of a few of “my veterans”—who deserve a personal thank you from me this week. These special heroes include: Al Mobley, my husband, who spent two stints in the United States Army; my father-in-law Al Mobley, and friends Gene Neyer, Todd Campbell, Brandon Harding and Darold Farless, just to name a few.
I can’t remember not knowing Ken. I can’t remember not knowing his family. His family members are patriotic, passionate and devoted to their communities. Every time I hear him speak, I get goose bumps. They don’t make men like him much anymore. He is tough and humble. He speaks from the heart. He sets a goal and begins to figure out how to achieve it.
He has been instrumental in promoting the town’s historical roots and getting people to visit the local museum created by the Aurora Historical Society. He can be seen working in the entry to Maple Park Cemetery. The 109 year old block entryway has been moved back into the park area. He moved it there a block at a time to save it and preserve its historical significance on the town’s southern edge. Symbolism abounds in the shape of a V for victory at the entrance and the cross for America’s roots in faith. Ackley knows there are 1,009 veterans buried in Maple Park. He knows that because he helps put American flags on those graves a couple of times a year to commemorate their service.
Ackley has been chosen as the recipient of my 21st Century Skills class service project this fall. We are saving aluminum cans and spare change to help his Veterans Memorial Project at Maple Park Cemetery. His project started out as a dream and six years later is almost complete. He has a large monument to add to the mix and is in the process of establishing a perpetual care fund for the memorial, which honors veterans from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
During his talk, he spoke to them about growing up during the Great Depression, helping out the War Effort during World War II and quitting school his junior year to help his mother put food on the table for herself and her four children. Later on, he served in Korea himself and is now a volunteer for eight service organizations in the Aurora area. Ironically, before he left Monday afternoon, he donated a check for $20 to the Holocaust fund and gave us a big sack of crushed aluminum cans he had picked up alongside the roadway. I had to smile. The recipient of our good will is already giving back to us to get us started.
At the age of 75, he says he is slowing down. I just can’t see it. At that, he still outdoes most people any given day of the week. He is a local historian, helps out at all the area cemeteries by documenting the locations of graves, hosts fundraiser breakfasts at the American Legion home and is a frequent face at events sponsored by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. He is active with the Aurora Lions Club and helps set an example at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church. He raised eight children and served as a role model to all of us lucky enough to be friends with his kids.
He is planning a Veterans Day ceremony in Maple Park this coming Saturday morning. He does it because it is the right thing to do.
He urged my students to see things through and not give up on their dreams. He told them hard times build character and help people figure out what’s important. He told them to apply themselves to get things accomplished. His first job found him making $16 a week. He worked eight hours a day for seven day weeks. He spoke about Sunny Crest Dairy on the west side of Oak Park and how he worked at the lumber yard near the railroad tracks before going into the construction business for himself. He is not afraid of hard work. He is not afraid of tough times.
John Wayne may be Ken Ackley’s hero; but my hero is Ken Ackley. He is not a movie star. He is not an action figure. But they don’t come any better.
“Stay in school and work on your grades. Please finish high school. A good job requires a good education. You can be a hero by setting a good example for all your friends,” he told them.
My students have a new hero now, too. And I couldn’t be more pleased. And I bet, John Wayne would be pleased to be in such good company, too.
(Kim McCully-Mobley is a local writer, photographer, educator, speaker and storyteller. She shares one thing in common with Ken Ackley as both have been named Top Dawg and Loyd R. Ellis community service award recipients by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. She is also friends with his son, Chris, who once managed to shut her up by hitting her in the nose with her own shoe when they were children. She has never quite recovered. She is self-described as a gypsy, cowgirl, pirate, rebel storyteller with a passion for veterans, folklore, leadership and community service. For additional information about her projects, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 417-229-2094.)