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Honoring a veteran's wishes

A daughter and wife are remembering their father and husband this Memorial Day after recently accompanying his remains to a final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

United States Army veteran Gordon Rickeard passed away Nov. 3, 2018. He often spoke of Arlington as a final resting place.

“He watched the show NCIS a lot and they often reference Arlington and he would always say he would love to be buried there,” said Mr. Rickeard’s daughter, April Swartz. “He said it was the highest honor a veteran could get, but he didn’t think it was something for which he was eligible.”

Following his death, Swartz was watching an episode of NCIS and remembered her father’s wish.

“The episode referenced taking a soldier to Arlington and showed the cemetery and I thought, “I wonder if I could call and see if my dad is eligible?’” she said.

Rickeard enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school in 1965 and served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War with Co. A 4/3 11th Infantry Brigade. He was honorably discharged in 1968, attaining the rank of Specialist 4th Class. He received the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge and Two Overseas Bars.

Swartz found out her father’s service and honorable discharge made him eligible to be interred in the final resting place of over 400,000 men and women who served their country

Swartz said the process to get to Arlington was not easy.

“It took about a year of emails and telephone calls and paperwork,” said Swartz. “Most of the people there are volunteers and they were so great to work with. They kept in touch with me throughout the entire process.”

She’s also thankful for the help offered by the John B. Brown Funeral Home, which handled her father’s arrangements, and assisted in completing documents and sending them to Washington, D.C.

“They knew how important this was and helped me get information there on time, so as not to delay the process,” she said.

The family made the trip to the nation’s capital May 4, one day after what would have been her father’s 73rd birthday.

“We had to go through a lot of security and, due to COVID-19, we had to wear masks and social distance, maintaining a distance of 10 feet apart,” said Swartz.

Swartz and her husband Barry and her mother Dianne Hess-Rickeard were then escorted to a memorial chapel where the service took place.

“The handler, who is the case worker, explained everything that would happen and what we could expect,” said Swartz.

Following the service, full military honors were accorded and the family was escorted to the columbarium, the final resting place for Mr. Rickeard’s ashes.

Swartz said her father will eventually have a marble niche that lists his name, military rank, years of service, religion and dates of birth and death.

“They put a temporary one on and it takes two or three months for the the permanent niche,” she said. “They will request we go back down to make sure everything is correct when it’s in place.”

Swartz said the process of taking her father to Arlington brought closure for her.

“As the service started to approach, I didn’t know if I could do this because I had to part with 100% of my father’s ashes,” she said. “I had his remains at my house from the time they were returned from the crematorium and I felt like he was here with me. I knew the service would be a final goodbye.”

Swartz also anticipated the service would be emotional.

“I thought I’d be an emotional wreck, but I told myself this is what he wanted and I’m happy I was able to give it to him,” she said. “Once the service was over, I felt at peace, my mom felt at peace and my husband felt at peace. It was if a big weight was lifted off our shoulders. Yes, it was a final goodbye, but he’s home now. I know he’s where he needed to be. It felt like my dad was there with us and my mom said, ‘I bet he’s watching over us, grinning ear to ear.’”

Swartz said her father was proud of his military service, but, like many veterans, didn’t speak much of his days in Vietnam.

“He told me his best friend died in his arms, but he never spoke about it in-depth,” she said. “He spoke more about when he first enlisted.”

A Saxton native, Mr. Rickeard lived in Huntingdon before moving to Spring Run, Franklin County. He worked at Letterkenny Army Depot as a power engineer for 23 years until his retirement in 2011.

During his time at Letterkenny, Mr. Rickeard received a Letterkenny Penny, given to employees who exhibit good work ethic and excellent workmanship.

“The colonel is the only one who presents it and it’s engraved with his name and date,” said Swartz. “Not many get a Letterkenny Penny, so my dad was very proud of that.”

Swartz has fond memories with her father.

“He was a fun person and so caring,” said Swartz. “He would give the shirt off his back to help someone.”

This Memorial Day, Swartz urges folks to give thanks for the men and women who served their country, no matter the branch or if they served during a time of war or peace.

“We need to honor our loved ones who have served their country and the ones who never came home,” she said.

Swartz said she plans to return to Arlington often.

“Even though you’re right outside the city and you can see the White House, you’re in this peaceful place when you’re in the cemetery and it’s a very humbling experience,” she said. “You’re in the company of heroes. It almost takes your breath away. We’re going to visit quite often.”

Becky can be reached at bweikert@huntingdondailynews.com.

Leaders meet with displaced Blair House fire victims

Displaced residents of the Blair House Apartments met with local officials outside of the Huntingdon Motor Inn Friday morning to address concerns and provide information, more than a week after fire left them homeless and without any belongings.

“I thought it was important to have this meeting sooner than later, not only to bring you together but to bring the agencies who are involved together so we’re all on the same page,” state Rep. Rich Irvin told the group.

Huntingdon Borough Police Chief Jeff Buckley addressed rumors circulating that law enforcement is preventing residents from entering the building to collect their things.

“We used the state police fire marshal and when their investigation was done, essentially that’s the end of law enforcement involvement. Yes, we are concerned about safety, and people coming and going, but essentially the property has been turned over to the owners. The ownership of the Blair House and owners of the Huntingdon Electric and their insurance company are responsible for that property.”

Buckley added that HPD is continuing an effort to live-trap cats out of the building in partnership with the Huntingdon County Humane Society.

After hearing the former Blair House residents’ frustrations about a lack of communication from the property owners, Stanford Management, Huntingdon Borough manager Chris Stevens was next to speak.

“I would strongly encourage you as residents to have a strong group, get some spokespeople and get some representation to deal with the property owners. That’s going to be your best bet to deal with the management company that owns the building,” he said. “The last I heard on the Blair Building was that the top floor was going to be taken off by hand and they were going to shore up the building to try and save the building.”

Kathy Armillei, director of the Huntingdon County United Way, said she is currently in contact with people from BMZ Law in Huntingdon and MidPenn Legal Services to get the group legal representation.

Representatives from the Huntingdon-Bedford-Fulton Area Agency on Aging, Huntingdon County PRIDE, the Huntingdon County Housing Authority, Juniata Valley Behavioral & Developmental Services and the Huntingdon County Emergency Management Agency were also on hand Friday.

Wendy Melius, director of the Center for Community Action, said there is significant coordination across these agencies to find a quick and effective solution for the displaced residents.

“Behind the scenes, what you don’t see is we’re collaborating to make sure we have as much as we can in place for you and get you you out of the hotel and into some type of safe secure housing as quickly as possible. First and foremost we want to make sure you have safe, affordable housing,” she said.

The Herculean effort to help the displaced residents of Blair House Apartments has been ongoing since the fire occurred May 12.

Auxiliary Captain Charity Bender of the Huntingdon County Salvation Army talked about some of those very efforts.

“I know they’re in the process of working on finding housing,” she said. “But, of course, they have to do their part, but we’re working on that.”

With that in mind, she said many people are calling the Salvation Army to ask if residents need big ticket items, like furniture, but she’s advising them to keep it, as they want to focus on basic needs for right now.

She’s asking that people donate some basic men’s and women’s hygiene items and new undergarments, like underwear and under shirts, if needed.

Bender also noted that Michelle Rupert, who heads up Huntingdon Community Soup Kitchen, is also working to get meals to those still staying at the Huntingdon Motor Inn each day.

“If anyone wants to donate to her that way, they can get a hold of her and let her know,” she said.

The Salvation Army is also taking gift cards as well, and Bender said they can divvy out the cards to those who need them by identifying the need amongst the displaced residents.

Rupert can be reached at 599-4700. For more information on what’s needed with The Salvation Army, contact them at 643-1430.

There are still two GoFundMe pages set up for the victims, including one with Achieving Community Together (ACT) at www.gofundme.com/f/blair-building-fire-response and through Rupert at www.gofundme.com/f/blair-building-fire-victims.

Additionally, ACT, the Salvation Army and the Huntingdon County United Way are teaming up with Huntingdon resident Kathleen Davignon to start the Adopt a Blair House Resident project.

The project includes matching up a willing volunteer with a displaced resident to help with any specific needs at this time.

Visit the Adopt a Blair House Resident on Facebook to learn how to help.

Many are still concerned about the fate of the Blair House Apartments building, and according to Jim Morris, Huntingdon Borough code enforcement officer, the fate of the building is still undetermined.

“As of now, no plans have been made to do anything with the Blair Building because the engineers are still doing their evaluation of the building,” he said.

As to the work that began Thursday on the Huntingdon Electric and Motor Co. building, Morris gave details on what primary safety actions they were doing to the building this week

“This includes the removal of brick from the north side of the building, from between the stair towers (east-west bays two through 10) to prevent brick from falling into the roadway of Route 26 (Penn Street),” said Morris. “They’re also removing debris from east-west bays three through six to facilitate initial fire investigation work (from man-lift) or crane basket”

Some of these things could be done to allow fire investigators to inspect the building.

“This may include all brick be removed in a controlled manner from the north side of the building, between the northeast and northwest stair towers, from the elevation of the windowsills at the second floor to the roof elevation,” said Morris. “Any loose brick must be removed from the exteriors of the northeast and northwest stair towers.

“It may be necessary to remove the roof support beams from the front north-south bay from front wall to first interior column line,” he added. “It may also be necessary to remove the steel beams and columns from the 4th floor front wall from the top of the north wall in east-west bays 2–10 (between stair towers). Hanging debris should also be removed in a controlled manner from east-west bays three through six, from the north wall of the building to the south wall.

These actions will be taken after the primary work is completed, said Morris.

“Additional actions after this will include removal of brick from the west and south sides of the building; additional removal of debris to possibly make portions of building safe to enter for fire investigators; additional removal of debris to possibly make portions of building safe to enter for removal/salvage of industrial equipment and product inventory and, eventually, demolition of the main building.”

Nathan and Kylie can be reached at nwoods@huntingdondailynews.com and khawn@huntingdondailynews.com.

Residents urged to observe Memorial Day despite canceled services

Most parades and services honoring fallen servicemen and women have been canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions, but that doesn’t mean the meaning of Memorial Day has been lost or forgotten.

“Services in most places might be canceled, but this is only temporary,” said Huntingdon resident Jay Buchanan, who served in the United States Marine Corps and is now active with the Standing Stone Detachment of the United States Marine Corps League and other local veterans’ organizations. “Memorial Day is just one day to mark the patriotism and heroism of those who died in wartime. Patriotism isn’t a day, it’s a lifestyle.”

Buchanan reminds folks that patriotism isn’t just standing when the flag passes, but remembering and being grateful for those men and women who sacrificed their lives and for their families who supported them and were without their fathers or mothers all those years.

“It’s sad we can’t celebrate today, but it doesn’t mean we can’t carry on and be true patriots and show signs of gratitude all year long,” he said.

He also urged folks to commemorate the day, despite canceled gatherings.

“We can certainly do things to commemorate the day, simple things like flying the flag and pausing at (the time a parade or service was scheduled to begin) to remember the importance of the day,” he said. “When things are safe, visit a military site like the Wall that Heals in Altoona or visit a military cemetery,” he said.

Canceled services

As announced two weeks ago, Huntingdon’s annual Memorial Day services and parade scheduled for Monday, May 25, have been canceled. Ray Shipp also reached out to The Daily News to announce the cancelation of services at the McConnellstown Cemetery. Services at the Trough Creek Bapist Cemetery have been canceled, as well as the Cassville Cemetery services and those at Cherry Grove Cemetery in Three Springs and the Madden-Wennick American Legion in Orbisonia.

All services in the Broad Top region have been canceled, as well.

Services planned

Memorial Day services will still be held at the Old School Baptist Church/Cemetery in Three Springs. Services will begin at 10 a.m. Seating will be available inside the church. A loudspeaker system will be outside the church so that those choosing to remain outside or in their cars will be able to hear the entire service.

The Rev. John Hodge, pastor at Calvary Independent Baptist Church, McConnellsburg, will serve as the guest speaker. Hodge has a diverse background in religious ministry/counseling as a high school principal/teacher and a military career. He has a Ph.D in education administration and two masters degrees. He joined the Ohio National Guard at age 17, entered active army service in 1957 and served in Hawaii in the 25th infantry division and with the 104 Long Range surveillance detachment Pennsylvania National Guard.

Special music will be offered by Katelyn and Kara Harper. Taps will be played at the conclusion of the service. All are welcome.

Services will also be held at the Saltillo Cemetery at 11 a.m. Monday, May 25. The Rev. Dan Long, pastor of Calvary Independent Baptist Church, Saltillo, will serve as the guest speaker.

Alternative observances

In Saxton, leaders did not want the day to go without recognition.

In honor and remembrance of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, churches will ring the bells for 3 minutes at noon Memorial Day, Monday, May 25, in Saxton and surrounding areas.

The event is co-sponsored by Watson & Black American Post 126 in Broad Top City, American Legion Post 169 in Saxton, Captain Phillips Post VFW Post 4129, American Legion Post 556 in Six Mile Run, Saxton Borough Council and the Broad Top Ministerium.

In the Juniata Valley region, folks are encouraged to join in a citizens remember parade Monday, May 25. The parade will leave the baseball field in Petersburg at 10:45 a.m. Monday, going through town and making a loop through the cemetery. The group will then head to Mooresville, where they will follow the traditional Memorial Day parade route.

AristaCare at Woodland Park in Orbisonia also plans to honor its veterans with a Memorial Day parking lot parade Monday, May 25. Festivities will begin at 2 p.m. and participants will remain in their car as they enter the parking lot at 18889 Croghan Pike from the Sandy Ridge Station parking lot. Staff will direct motorists.

Becky can be reached at bweikert@huntingdondailynews.com.

County will move to yellow

Just after the state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced its five-level system for demobilization of all of its state correctional facilities across the state, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Friday that Huntingdon County will be one of eight counties that will move to the yellow phase of the administration’s phased reopening of Pennsylvania Friday, May 29.

As far as what the yellow phase means for the county, there are guidelines specified under the state’s plan.

For work and congregate setting restrictions, telework must continue where feasible, business with in-person operations must follow building safety orders; childcare can open complying with guidance, congregate care and prison restrictions are still in place, and schools remain closed for in-person instruction.

Gatherings of more than 25 people are still prohibited; in-person retail is allowed, but curbside and delivery is still preferred; bars and restaurants are still limited to carry out and delivery, and all businesses must follow the state Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control guidance as much as necessary.

However, places like bars, salons, barbershops, theaters and gyms need to be closed under the yellow guidance.

In a conference call with reporters Friday, Wetzel noted some SCIs will be moving to level 4 of its five-level demobilization plan, which include SCIs Huntingdon and Smithfield.

“As the governor reopens Pennsylvania, we, too, must return to a more normal operation, and get back to preparing individuals to successfully re-enter society,” said Wetzel.

With the outbreak at SCI Huntingdon, many wondered why the DOC didn’t consider mass population testing of all inmates, but Wetzel explained that the accuracy of the current tests, which is 70%, left too much to chance, so they used another strategy.

“If we would test 1,000 inmates, and 10-30% of the people we tested were false negatives, but they’re actually positive, we think we could move them out and share the disease with someone else,” he said. “We do what is called surveillance testing, which is a random sample of enough people on an unit to give us a picture of the reality.”

He detailed an example of an inmate who was ready to be released at SCI Benner, as all inmates are tested prior to release.

“We tested that person, and if they were asymptomatic, then we would get a randomized sample of everyone on the unit where the inmate was, and we would get a percentage from that random sample,” he said. “From that percentage, it projects the likely disease spread at that facility.

At SCI Benner, we did a random sample of 57 inmates after the inmate (scheduled for release tested positive), and we learned they were all negative,” added Wetzel.

The DOC also requires inmates be tested at county jails before they’re transferred to any SCI facility, and inmates are all tested if they’re transferred to another facility, added Wetzel.

At SCI Huntingdon, the strategy was a little different, because, as the outbreak began and exponential spread was apparent, they treated all inmates as if they were positive.

“We had robust checks and balances for our most vulnerable inmates,” he said. “We were temperature testing, testing with a pulse oximeter and screening twice a day to catch everyone at high risk.”

Wetzel said they learned some of their most valuable lessons on how quickly it can spread and some of the ways the virus can spread in their facilities.

“How crowded a facility is is very relevant to the ability to spread it,” he said. “There are some things that played against us at SCI Huntingdon, including the high density, or lack of space between some cells, in some of the housing units.”

Some of the units at SCI Huntingdon are stacked three and four-tiered units with traditional bars on the doors as opposed to doors with plexiglass.

Wetzel also talked about some of the ways it spread once a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 first entered SCI Huntingdon April 9.

“In addition to barred doors, we also realized if there’s a nexus to food service, that could be a problem,” he said. “We had staff members in food service who tested positive, and there are inmates in food service. That was the mechanism for the disease to spread.”

But, thanks to the quick work of the staff at SCI Huntingdon, they were able to quickly build isolation units so inmates who tested positive could be quarantined and receive care.

“We built three additional isolation units to separate symptomatic cases from the rest of the population to the keep the number of individuals who needed hospitalization down,” he said. “There were a couple of days where it was touch and go.”

Wetzel said he entered into discussions with health systems like Penn Highlands Huntingdon and UPMC Altoona, knowing there was the possibility of potentially overwhelming the health systems in the county and region.

Most people focused on the state’s formula to move to different phases of Wolf’s reopening plan, but that wasn’t the only criteria for moving to different phase.

Another big component was hospital capacity, and thanks to the quick thinking of DOC staff and local health systems, hospitals in the area were not overwhelmed.

“We had discussions as cases were rising, and we thought about the community medical infrastructure,” said Wetzel. “This is where I want to thank both Penn Highlands and UPMC Altoona, but especially UPMC Altoona. We got a call on the weekend (from UPMC Altoona) saying we got your back, and we can make sure you guys get through this.”

Wetzel also noted they needed to make sure this wasn’t a potential threat to local EMS units as well.

While the state released data that shows that 57% of people have recovered from COVID-19, the DOC is able to specifically quantify how many inmates and staff have recovered.

While he wouldn’t speak to advising which counties should move to which phases, Wetzel did ask the DOH and the Wolf administration to take recovery numbers into account and the number of actual active cases at all facilities, including SCI Huntingdon.

The recovery numbers speak for themselves.

As of 3:30 p.m. May 22, 51 staff have tested positive for COVID-19, while 32 have recovered, and 158 inmates have tested positive, while 122 of those have recovered.

The DOC’s full five-level plan for demobilization can be found www.cor.pa.gov/Documents/PA-DOC-COVID-Demobilization-Plan.pdf.