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Memorial Day message: justice for all is a struggle that continues today

CHESTERTOWN — In his opening remarks at Sumner Hall’s annual Memorial Day observance, Larry Wilson acknowledged the courage and dedication of U.S. soldiers and sailors and airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice.

That’s what Memorial Day is, a time to salute those who have given their all in the fight for freedom — mostly on foreign soil against a foreign oppressor.

But it’s a cruel irony, Wilson said, that American service men and women of color who died on the battlefield for the freedoms of people around the world did not have true freedom at home.

The ideal of equality, justice and freedom for all is a struggle that continues today, said Wilson, whose 20 years of decorated service in the Navy included deployments to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War.

“We are living in a time where not just African Americans, but all Americans, are at risk of losing their freedom due to a government and society bent on racism, hate and injustice,” he said.

The Sumner Hall-sponsored tribute in Monument Park on Monday morning was at the obelisk that honors the 400-plus African Americans who fought for the Union during the Civil War.

The 15-minute ceremony featuring song and the spoken word drew a diverse audience of about 75.

For the first time, young people were active participants.

Jyshir Valentine and Jonah Somerville, mentees in the Rising Sons program, read from “The Colored Soldiers.” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, published posthumously in 1913, pays tribute to the “noble sons of Ham” whose blood “has cleansed completely every blot of Slavery’s shame.”

Paul Tue IV, Aniyah Tue and Amiya Potts representing Minary’s Dream Alliance and Operation GLOW read the Gettysburg Address.

The short speech delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 19, 1863 at the end of ceremonies dedicating the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. begins with one of the most recited sentences in American history: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Sadly, we seem to be out of practice in fulfilling the basic promises of democracy, especially the promise of equality under the law, Bob Ingersoll, a Navy veteran and former Sumner Hall board president, told the gathering.

He said Memorial Day is the day to honor those who sought to protect democracy “by promising yourself that you will work harder to assure others the equality that you wish for yourself.”

Yvette Hynson, a Sumner Hall board member, sang “Amazing Grace” a cappella and then led the gathering in “Lift Every Voice,” what is known as the Black National Anthem.

In closing, Wilson, on behalf of Sumner Hall’s board, thanked “everyone who is here this morning to recognize the importance of equality, justice and freedom in America.”

For the second year in a row, due to pandemic protocols that limit gatherings, the Sumner Hall-sponsored tribute was the only public Memorial Day observance in Kent County.

The ceremony was live streamed on Sumner Hall’s Facebook page.

Sumner Hall, located in the 200-block of South Cross Street in Chestertown, was founded in the 1880s as a cultural and social center for African American veterans of the Civil War.

CCA graduates told to enjoy new journey

CHESTERTOWN — Rudy Draper is a realist.

On Friday night, he told Chestertown Christian Academy’s graduating seniors that he didn’t expect them to remember much about the commencement address he was about to give.

He had once been where they were — excited about walking out the door with a diploma in hand, eager to step out into the so-called real world.

Most of what had been preached to him and his classmates fell on deaf ears, or was long forgotten, Draper said, making a personal connection to the soon-to-be graduates seated in the front pew of Chestertown Baptist Church.

His message was simple and straightforward, and he honored his promise to be brief.

Draper asked the Class of 2021 — Sam Brice, Drew Cornelius, Ally Lloyd, Matt Sadzinski and Emma Stoltzfus — to remember the leaders who have been behind them and the leaders who are ahead of them.

CCA teachers and staff, family and community members have taken the graduates as “far as we can,” loved you and cherished you, said Draper, who is the youth pastor at Chestertown Baptist Church.

“You will go on new adventures that we can’t go with you,” he told the graduates.

The good news is that there are others waiting to help, said Draper, who urged the students to seek out those who will invest in them, who will be there to offer advice and to hold them accountable.

Most of all, he said, trust in the Lord, who has never broken a promise.

“If you do that, you can leave this place tonight with strength and courage,” Draper said as he wrapped up his keynote address.

Striking a similar tone, valedictorian Emma Stoltzfus told her classmates to have faith in where they will go and to enjoy the journey.

“Don’t forget what we’ve learned here,” she said of CCA, which she described as a second home and the faculty, staff and students as family.

“My hope is that we will love others the way we have been loved,” said Stoltzfus.

Dream big, work hard, leave your mark, she urged her classmates.

Salutatorian Ally Lloyd said she doesn’t have a written-in-stone plan for the future. She’s still learning — about life, about who she wants to be as a person and who she doesn’t want to be.

She said the one thing she is certain of is that she wants to live a life of meaning.

This was CCA’s 42nd commencement.

Graduates presented roses to their parents and others who are important to them, scholarships were announced and there was an alumnus testimonial, this year delivered by Jared Brice ’17, whose younger brother Sam was graduating.

In what has become tradition, CCA celebrated its commencement on the eve of the extended Memorial Day weekend with ceremonies in the adjoining Chestertown Baptist Church. The formal ceremony took place in the front of the church in the altar area, where Pastor Shane Lankford (CCA Class of 1993) handed out the diplomas and first-year Principal Thomas Hudson turned the tassel on the cap of each of the graduates.

In voting by the faculty, high school juniors and their senior classmates, Sadzinski was chosen as Mr. CCA and Stoltzfus was selected Miss CCA as the best representatives of what it means to be a Chestertown Christian Academy student.

Stoltzfus also received the $1,000 Sarah and Rachel Baugher Scholarship as the graduating senior with the highest grade point average.

The five rising seniors in the Class of 2022, after being passed the “torch,” led the recessional, each carrying a battery-operated candle.

Behr, Swanson release new book 'Sunrise Summer'

CHESTERTOWN — To get to Coffee Point, Alaska from the Eastern Shore you have to take four flights and travel close to 4,000 miles over the span of two days.

Or you can just read Chestertown residents Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson’s newest book “Sunrise Summer.”

Set in the remote Alaskan wilderness, the picture book follows a young girl as she helps her family with their fishing operation for the first time as a member of the crew.

Inspired by their daughter Alden’s experience, Behr and Swanson utilize the story and illustrations to make their family’s annual trek to Alaska to fish easily accessible for a younger audience. When Behr was 2 her parents bought land in Alaska looking for adventure and established a commercial salmon fishing operation. The family has been fishing there ever since.

The book was absolutely Swanson’s idea, he said, “because Robbi refuses to admit that that’s interesting. You never think your own story is remarkable because it’s been rendered ordinary by living it every day. I was just enough of an outsider to still recognize that it was something special. One of the things I did that feels notable is I left myself out of this story. It’s not my story. It’s Robbi’s story, and Alden’s story. It was really a story about two people. Other people appear in it, but you guys are the core and the heart of it. That’s all you can do in a picture book is tell one simple story.”

This is the third picture book that the Chestertown based author-illustrator duo have commercially published with MacMillan, joining “Everywhere Wonder” and “Babies Ruin Everything,” but it almost didn’t happen.

“We actually had a different book under contract, and I wrote it and the editor and I got it all set, and Robbi at a certain point, to her credit, said, ‘I can’t illustrate this book, I’m not feeling it.’ We had a moment where we had to come up with another book and I’ve always wanted to write about Alaska,” Swanson said. He gave a lot of credit to their editor Erin Stein for pivoting so quickly to another book and helping convince Behr that people would be interested in reading about Alaska. “We all had to look Robbi in the eye and say, ‘This is interesting, your story is interesting.’”

The hardest part of writing this book for Swanson was deciding what to leave out. The hardest part for Behr was figuring out how to draw water.

“My favorite illustration is also my least favorite. It’s the one where we are pulling the rope with the sunrise behind us, but the water in the foreground had to look like water. That is something I had to learn how to do, and it took me a really long time to figure out how to make water look watery. The wavy water was really hard,” she said.

She also wishes she had been able to include more people in the book.

“I wish I had been able to give nods to all the people up there who are so wonderful and such a part of the experience. It’s such a wonderful, giving community,” she said.

“We are looking forward to taking the book up there this summer and sharing it with all these people who’ve spent their lives in this very obscure place that no one has ever seen or heard of who now have this document to validate and share,” Swanson said.

Behr and Swanson are also responsible for “The Real McCoys” and “The Cookie Chronicles” book series. “The Cookie Chronicles” is the newer of the two and introduces Ben Yokoyama, who is a literal-minded kid who takes the advice from fortune cookies a bit too seriously.

At the center of both “Real McCoys” and “Cookie Chronicles” are relationships, which Swanson said are based on his relationship with Behr.

“The books are always about me and Robbi at their core. I think it’s the dynamic I know best,” he said.

Copies of both have been given to local public schools and Behr and Swanson have done a number of author visits. Giving back to schools is what both of them say makes all the hard work of getting books published worth it.

“I went to Garnet Elementary School, I went to Chestertown Middle, I went to Kent County High. I feel some ownership. I feel like it’s a part of who I am, and I want to try to make it better. The fact is the wrestling mats they use at Garnet Elementary are the same ones they used 40 years ago when I was there. These are not privileged kids, this is a privileged town,” Behr said.

The pair started doing school visits a number of years ago by request and discovered that most of the schools they were visiting were private schools or well-funded public schools.

They felt that they weren’t meeting the kids who could use access to authors and books the most and wanted to switch their focus to Title I schools, schools where 60% of the student population is at or below the federal poverty line.

It made the most sense to start in their hometown.

“The first place to go obviously was our own school here in Chestertown which is a Title I school which doesn’t have the budget to give all the kids all the books all the time or bring in authors. We did a fundraiser for Garnet where we raised enough money in 24 hours to give all the kids and teachers hardcover books. We went into the school and did classroom visits, and it was amazing,” Behr said.

A week later, she said, the principal contacted them to share about the impact they had made on kids at the school.

“Kids were reading books in the hallway, talking about their books in class. It’s awesome,” she said.

Behr and Swanson have visited schools in Cecil County and will be giving presentations to all the Title I elementary schools in Queen Anne’s County later this month.

“Different people are drawn to the books for different reasons. If there’s something I’m really proud of about the books it’s that they appeal to a wide range of readers. I think there is a sophistication of language and sensibility that appeals to more precocious readers, but I think there is also a simplicity of message and story combined with the illustrations there as a guide which make the books so great for this so called reluctant or dormant reader. If we can be the thing that helps a kid feel comfortable reading that’s amazing,” Swanson said.

Fans of the husband-and-wife team can look forward to book three in “The Cookie Chronicles” coming out in December with books four and five to follow in the next few years.

All of Behr and Swanson’s books can be found wherever books are sold, including Chestertown’s own, the Bookplate.