The diversity of the military and of Harford County at large is a sign of how far the country has come since Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I have a dream" speech in 1963, Aberdeen Proving Ground's new commanding general said Thursday.
Major Gen. Robert Ferrell was the keynote speaker at the Harford County Human Relations Commission's annual Humanitarian Awards Luncheon, which paid tribute both to King and Joseph Bond, a local civil rights leader.
Ferrell told the assembly of local government and community leaders at Aberdeen's Beechtree Clubhouse that he is proud to be part of a military that believes "diversity is the foundation of our strength."
"It is no secret that the last 12 years have been a challenging time for our military," he said, noting servicemen and women have been sent to sites like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The military's Afghan and Iraqi partners, however, "were amazed that we were able to have one unit that had men and women," as well as units composed of people of different races, religions and backgrounds, Ferrell said.
Ferrell said he likes to think that if King could see U.S. military serving around the globe now, as well as the crowd gathered for the luncheon, "he would be proud at the many ways our nation's discord had been transformed into a symphony," in reference to another quote by King about being "able to transform the dangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."
He said he was honored to speak on a day representing both King and the "great Harford County leader and humanitarian" Joseph Bond, whose family was in the audience.
The unofficial theme of the luncheon was King's quote: "All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence."
Two Harford County students won awards for writing essays on the topic.
Ferrell reminded the crowd that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is also about community service.
"It is not only a federal holiday, it is also a national day of service," he said, urging people to consider the holiday "a day on, not a day off."
He also pointed out that King's team was rushing to finish his remarks before the night of the speech on the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963, and the famous "I have a dream" segment was actually improvised, not in his written remarks.
"It was a dream that he did not live to see but a dream that changed the course of our nation," Ferrell said.
He thanked attendees for making Harford a great place to live, work and play, where "Martin Luther King's dream is alive and well."
Harford County Executive David Craig picked up the theme as well and talked about Abraham Lincoln.
He called this a "historic year" because it is the anniversary of Lincoln pushing through the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery – "almost like an executive order," Craig joked, in reference to a handful of executive orders he has put through since his time in office.
"Unfortunately for us, it took 100 years to even begin to resolve the issues that were [started] to resolve in the 1860s," Craig said.
Besides Craig, luncheon guests included county Chief of Staff Aaron Tomarchio, State's Attorney Joe Cassilly, former county executive Jim Harkins, Circuit Court Judge Angela Eaves, Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Tomback, Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett, Bel Air Town Administrator Chris Schlehr, county Treasurer Kathryn Hewitt, Harford County Public Library Director Mary Hastler, Sheriff Jesse Bane, Aberdeen Councilwoman Ruth Ann Young, county Community Services Director Beth Hendrix, Health Officer Susan Kelly, Administration Director Mary Chance, County Attorney Rob McCord and County Council members Dion Guthrie, Chad Shrodes and Dick Slutzky.
Kaitlin Coudon, a senior at C. Milton Wright High School, won the essay contest along with $250 from the Human Relations Commission.
She read a moving essay about the experience of helping care for her grandfather, whose health was failing and who was "embarrassed and ashamed" to not be able to take care of himself.
She recalled a Sunday watching a Ravens game at her grandfather's house, while her friends were calling her.
While most teenagers would dread having to spend the time caring for an aging relative, Kaitlin said she looked forward to it all week because it was one more chance to see her grandfather.
Valerie Lannen, a senior at North Harford High School, was the runner-up and also got a certificate from Craig.
Wendell Baxter, head of the HRC, said Bond would be proud to see so many people in the room.
"I am a product of this community and I know when things were not as grand or as nice as they are now," he said. "I have seen improvement and I have worked with a lot of you."
He also said it is important for the county to focus on its young people, noting the HRC is looking into getting a youth member.
"What you have to do, what you should do, is be thinking about our youth. We are getting older," he said, getting a laugh from the crowd.
Ultimately, he said, "don't stop working to make our community a better place to live."
The John Carroll School's a cappella group Bella Voce also sang "In My Life" and "Imagine" by The Beatles, while Aberdeen High School's string quartet performed before the luncheon.
The Rev. Lisa Ward gave the invocation and Rabbi Gila Ruskin gave the closing benediction. Ruskin thanked God "who gave us the opportunity to repair the world."