Ralph Barrale’s visions as far as honoring veterans have tended to become realities. His latest project may as well – with a little help from his friends.
Barrale’s track record is good. He took a leadership role in renaming what was largely an Interstate 70 south service road from Foristell to St. Charles to “Veterans Memorial Parkway,” and naming the Interstate 364 bridge across the Missouri River “Veterans Memorial Bridge.” He even dreamed up a veterans memorial adjacent to the Lake Saint Louis city hall that was completed in 2008.
Barrale, 94, a World War II veteran and long-time active member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10350, isn’t resting on his laurels. His latest project is a St. Charles County Veterans Museum, an idea coming closer to reality with O’Fallon agreeing to a generous lease for the former city park annex building at 410 E. Elm St. for the museum, which is expected to open April 2019
But the success of the project will be in the details. Barrale and a group of museum supporters are grappling with those details as the opening gets closer. None is larger than raising money so the museum can remain not only open but also thrive in the years to come. Another challenge is developing a vision for what the museum will feature.
Barrale has talked about establishing a county veterans museum for years and enlisted the help of Jim Frain, a community activist who is now a member of the museum’s executive committee.
“Ralph said ‘If I was 25 years younger I’d do it,’” Frain said. “And I said, ‘Well, I was 25 years younger,’ which is true, I was 70 a couple of days ago, and you [Barrale] are soon to be 95. People started joining up and it has kind of moved along.”
“The thing is, there are thousands and thousands of veterans in St. Charles County and they have this memorabilia they have from the service in a box or in a basement or up in an attic or somewhere is doing nothing but collecting dust,” Barrale said.
That memorabilia can include photographs, medals, letters, helmets, old weapons, news clippings, uniforms and other items.
“It should be in a place where people can come say, ‘Oh, I know this guy. Heck, he was my neighbor. I didn’t know he was in the Marines or Air Force.’ We have all this memorabilia and it will be there [in the museum] for generations to come.”
The memorabilia is important in that it can tell a story about the times, experiences and life of the veteran who brought it home.
“You see these things and you ask, ‘What happened to this person? Is he still alive? Did he get killed?’” Barrale said.
Executive board member Teri Violet, a St. Peters alderman and a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the 1980s, said, “We’re not collecting boxes of things that nobody wanted. We’re collecting memorabilia that has a connection to residents here in St. Charles County and each bit of memorabilia will have a story with it. That’s one thing we’re requesting, that we have information about the person this memorabilia is coming from and a story,” she said.
Violet said people often don’t know what to do with memorabilia, especially items being passed down from parents or grandparents.
“In the homes I go to when I meet with people, they say, ‘We’ve had it in our basement forever, we would never throw it away because it’s my father’s or grandfather’s, but we don’t know what to do with it,’” Frain said.
“Or it ends up in a garage sale,” Violet added.
Organizing memorabilia can be an emotional experience for everyone participating. “Some of the stories you hear – there are heroes all over the place,” Frain said.
Revealing some of the stories could provide therapy for some veterans, but for some, the stories may be too difficult or remain painful to share.
Veterans often open up only to other veterans, Barrale said. The memorabilia can also reveal a bit about what they lived through. Harrowing memories surface.
Barrale, who was a U.S. Army military policeman, served with the Third Army under Gen. George Patton and with the First Army. He experienced the Battle of the Bulge and the horrors of the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest and was among the troops liberating the Dachau concentration camp. The flashbacks still occur. Even during the interview with Barrale, Frain and Violet in Barrale’s basement in Lake Saint Louis, some came back.
Barrale said he was driving a jeep with a mail clerk in the Hurtgen Forest through an area with no roads and he saw bayonets stuck in the ground identifying where bodies were buried.
“The engineers had a bulldozer trying to make a road there and all of sudden a body comes out in front of it,” Barrale said. “Stuff like that stays with you because you lived it.”
He remembers the tops of trees in the forest were gone due to German artillery fire. Soldiers would be in foxholes below the trees and “the trees would come down and stab like spears,” he said.
“When people walk out of that museum, we want them to have some kind of emotional experience, whether its crying or laughing or feeling good,” Frain said.
“And we want them saying, ‘Wow, what a place,’” Barrale added.
Finding that place took a long time. Barrale had hoped to locate it in Lake Saint Louis, but that space wasn’t available. A possible site in Wentzville didn’t work out. Eventually, he met O’Fallon Mayor Bill Hennessy and told him about his idea for a museum.
“And right off the bat he looked at me and said, ‘Ralph, I think I might have a building for you.’”
There was a catch. The annex building, used by the city’s parks and recreation department, would become available if city voters approved a parks proposition in 2016 that would provide more park space. Frain said county museum supporters were quick to campaign in support of the proposition, which was approved by 59.7 percent of voters.
The O’Fallon City Council voted 10-0 in March to approve leasing the building to the Veteran’s Museum Committee for $1 per year. The city will continue to maintain the building and pick up some utilities after the first three years.
But other expenses remain, ranging from lighting to security to insurance.
Fundraising is extremely important, said executive committee member Jim Higgins, who is handling much of the financial planning for the building.
The museum is holding a raffle of a Henry Golden Boy Model lever action .22 caliber rifle and hosting a trivia night at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8 at VFW Post 5077, located at 8500 Veterans Memorial Parkway in O’Fallon.
Higgins said fundraising has been good so far, but added that the museum may have to hold five or six fundraising events annually. Museum supporters also are meeting with veterans organizations, county businesses, individual residents and civic groups in an effort to raise awareness and funds.
According to Higgins, the group’s fundraising efforts likely will expand to seek donations from large businesses in the county and throughout the region.
Museum officials may get into the Civic building in September and one thought is to develop a gallery or display that might be part of a fundraising event in January to draw corporate interest.
The annex has about 3,200 square feet of space and the museum has a rich history to draw from when it comes to veterans in the county. There may have been 160 to 180 War of 1812 veterans who lived in the county, a Civil War battle was fought in Wentzville, and many veterans from both world wars, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf conflict also reside in the county.
Higgins said he can see the museum running out of space in a little as five years. Raising money to expand the building may have to be included in future planning, he said.
Renee Essary, another executive committee member, said the museum is not only a way to honor veterans like Barrale, but a way to highlight changes that have occurred in the armed services.
Essary served during the 1980s when women were increasingly taking on more prominent roles in the military. She served four years of active duty in the Air Force and six years in the Missouri Air National Guard. She was a flight operations specialist for a fighter squadron.
Essary was born into a military family and married a veteran. “My life has been devoted to the military … even to the point that I can say, as an adult, I never even dated a civilian,” Essary laughed.
She said her story isn’t as dramatic as what Barrale experienced. “For me, it was a lot of fun,” she said, though she added that it was a place where a young woman, who “graduated high school by the skin of her teeth” grew up and matured, thanks to the discipline she experienced.
Essary said serving in the military may help remedy many societal problems young people experience today.
Essary, Barrale and Violet want the museum to help young people to understand what the price of freedom can be.
“We want those [veterans] appreciated and respected,” Violet said. “It’s to understand what servicemen went through and to respect our flag and help educate our children. What we have to aim for is that it’s interesting for little children and adults.”