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A veteran vocal presence at Memorial Day ceremonies

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There were no somber crowds, no guest tents, no military musicians or American Gold Star mothers, not even flags on the flagpoles, as Alan Walden toured the Circle of the Immortals at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens on a chilly, misty morning, two weeks before Memorial Day.

The flags were down due to the weather, and Walden, a student of military history, was enlightening a reporter about the only two places in the country where flags are legally required to be flown 24/7, rain or shine — the Dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, and Baltimore's own Fort McHenry, where American soldiers held the British at bay during the War of 1812.

"I am a pure, unabashed, unapologetic, unrepentant patriot," said Walden, 78, of Cross Keys, a retired NBC Radio correspondent and news anchor for WBAL-AM from 1986 to 2000, where he also did commentaries known as "Walden's Ponderings."

The proof of his patriotism can be seen from his honorary and working titles, including chairman emeritus of the group Friends of Fort McHenry, president of the Baltimore Council of the Navy League of the United States, and honorary colonel of the Maryland Line, first battalion of the 175th Infantry Regiment, based in Pikesville.

"I am really locked in," he said.

But nowhere is Walden's patriotic passion more apparent than in the Circle of the Immortals, in Towson, dedicated in 1967, with its low stone wall encircling graves and monuments to Maryland veterans who were killed in combat and in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Walden will celebrate his 25th year as master of ceremonies of the annual Memorial Day celebration at Dulaney Valley on May 26.

The event, a well-known Memorial Day staple, is also scheduled to include speeches by U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, Brig. Gen. Scott Kelly of the Maryland Air National Guard; and Janice Chance, president of the Maryland Chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers, an organization of mothers who have lost a son or daughter in service to the country. The keynote speaker is Mary Gail Hare, retired Sun staff writer.

The 229th Maryland Army National Guard Band will perform, as will color guard units from the Maryland National Guard, the Patriot Guard Riders and the Elkridge Young Marines, among other groups.

"There will be flags everywhere," Walden said knowingly.

In his gravelly, mellifluous voice, Walden will read aloud an honor roll of veterans who died in the past year or so, and a verse from the poem "The Young British Soldier," written by Rudyard Kipling in 1895 as British troops fought in Afghanistan:

"When first under fire an' you're wishful to duck,

"Don't look nor take 'eed at the man that is struck,

"Be thankful you're livin', and trust to your luck

"And march to your front like a soldier."

Walden wishes he didn't have to read such words. He wishes there wasn't a need for organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"Ideally, there shouldn't be any, because there shouldn't be any war," he said. "But human nature flies in the face of that. Try as we may, we can't seem to get past it."

'I'm your man'

Walden emceed his first Memorial Day ceremony at Dulaney Valley in 1989. John Armiger, then owner of the cemetery, had heard that Walden, then recently arrived in Baltimore for a WBAL job, had become active at Fort McHenry. Armiger called Walden and asked him to be master of ceremonies.

The next year, Armiger asked if Walden would be willing to emcee the event every year.

"I said, 'I'm your man,' " recollected Walden, himself a U.S. Army veteran who served as a military policeman, though not during wartime.

A quarter century later, Walden was out there again with his wife, Jeannie, on a cold, damp morning, wearing a Friends of Fort McHenry shirt.

Jeannie Walden, 81, is also involved in the annual ceremonies. Each year, she lays roses on graves in the circle and wears a Civil War-era dress in honor of the roots of Memorial Day, which started as Decoration Day soon after the Civil War.

"I'm a performer," she said. In addition to being the first female on-air director at NBC Radio, where the couple met, she also moonlighted as an actress in off-Broadway and dinner theater productions of well-known musicals like "Kiss Me Kate" and "Guys and Dolls."

Her husband prefers to wear "human clothes" at the Memorial Day event, but has been known to don a Civil War uniform for the occasion. He owns two of them, one blue and one gray.

And while his wife relishes the performing, Walden, with his mellifluous, gravelly voice, prides himself on his public speaking and knowledge of history.

"She's the actress. I'm the historian," he said.

While she stayed warm in the car, he pointed out imposing monuments of interest, including one for World War II and Korean War veterans and another for latter-day veterans, including those killed in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

Debt of gratitude

The Memorial Day event is one of many he does each year. Coming up are appearances on Defenders Day at Fort McHenry on Sept. 13, Veterans Day at the War Memorial Plaza in downtown Baltimore on Nov. 11 and Pearl Harbor Day on Dec. 7, aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Taney, which is located in the Inner Harbor and is the last of the U.S. warships that saw action at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Walden also honors requests to speak to private groups, some for free, like religious and veterans' groups. He also narrates videos, such as one for Sail Baltimore and another for the Babe Ruth Museum, about how the Star-Spangled Banner came to be played at baseball games.

He lends his voice to so many memorial events because he feels that he owes a debt to those who died in war.

"These people did what they did for me," he said. "They did what they did for the country I love. It was something they had to do, to keep this country free, to keep me free. I feel committed to do it — compelled to do it."

He is doing it at a time when age is thinning the ranks of war veterans.

"I'm one of those older guys," he said. "I hope that someone cares enough to continue these ceremonies and events, like this, to remind the generations that are coming of the sacrifices that were made to allow those generations to prosper in peace."

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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