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Honoring Vets: Sandy Hart’s devotion to ‘true heroes’ is a powerful story of living unselfishly

On Veteran’s Day Nov. 11, Americans pause to celebrate all the men and women who have served in the U.S. military. In the days leading up to this official national holiday, KyForward pauses to celebrate some of the Kentuckians counted among those heroes.

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Sandy Hart knows a good deal about what it means to give all of oneself to something important. As an example, we might start with her marriage, a lesson in giving.

“I married a Marine for the (last) 47 years and am still crazy about him,” she said, with gleaming eyes. “We knew each other for six weeks and a day. We’ve stayed together on a dare.” Ray and Sandy Hart have raised a family of five girls and one boy, each of them attune to living unselfishly like their parents.

She proudly praises her husband for his military service, and she admired her father’s, too. However, that was a subject almost never brought up when she was growing up in St. Louis, eighth of eleven children. “My dad served during World War II,” said Sandy. “I didn’t ask him any questions.”

As many World War II American veterans and now attest, it needed to be recognized and talked about … much sooner than in 2004, when Sandy led a passion-driven and successful project in support of America’s military veterans. Seventeen busloads of individuals Sandy calls “true heroes,” along with loved ones — 815 in all, including 517 World War II veterans—set out on a pilgrimage to the new World War II Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Reaching that destination helped bring a healthy dose of solace to their inner beings.

The powerfulness of those memorable days was a connection that needed to be made—a chance to somehow make sense of emotional loose ends that dangled painfully for over a half-century.

For Earl Gidcumb, a crew member of the infamous World War II flagship USS Indianapolis that was sunk by Japanese forces, it was even more special. He played taps at the Wall of Stars during the Memorial visit. “I never would have had this honor had it not been for Sandy Hart,” he said. “She has done more for veterans than anyone I have ever known and continues to do so.”

The Washington trip cost nothing for those invited. Many of them, living on fixed incomes, had little financial means to participate. Undoubtedly, it would be their last opportunity to tackle such an extraordinarily important trip.

The endeavor had to be financed in some way, and the greater Paducah community, including Ballard County, responded to the call. Funds came together over a one-and-half-year period, with collection points at the local Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club and dozens of “little” fund-raisers. Sandy spoke to groups and hundreds individually. She wrote articles, made phone calls. Sometimes she asked for donations, sometimes she pleaded. Veterans and their loved ones were energized to help. Long, tiring hours, with many around who thought it couldn’t be done, made it more exhilarating when it happened.


“Everybody should do something once in their lives others say is impossible,” Sandy often says, and she means it.

In that regard, thanks to the perseverance and unselfish efforts of Sandy and a legion of even more supporters, a continual source of affirmation – “a balm for the weary soul” – is now available for those who gave so much to protect America’s freedom. The Kentucky Veteran & Patriot Museum, in the small Western Kentucky town of Wickliffe, invites those who understand – and those trying to understand— the struggle to come and engage in a positive way.

“I started hearing their stories in 2002,” she said, “and they just kept bringing me stuff in buckets to help me understand them better. This started taking on a life of its own.”

The idea of a museum to store the thousands of pieces of military memorabilia being donated began to excite Sandy and her husband, a Church of Christ minister who also does missionary work in India and formerly preached on a Native American reservation in Arizona. Together, the couple acquired the vacated Wickliffe Church of Christ building and property on Highway 286 for the price of $150,000.

Things began to move fast, and the Kentucky Veteran & Patriot Museum opened by popular demand on March 31, 2012 – still in process of being ready, yet already meaningful. With supporters who donate time and money, the balance is steadily being paid down. The enthusiasm Sandy demonstrates while promoting the museum is a big reason for the success of the financial gifting. It’s contagious because it is done with such authenticity, and people respond.

This visitor recently was regaled with anecdotes, observations and all manner of finely nuanced, heart-felt comments as Sandy gave him a “grand tour” of the place of tribute. She told of a veteran who donated pictures for the wall, and who “spent $400 of his own money to have them enlarged and framed.”

· “Here are scrapbooks a lady saved articles in from 1936 to 1943.”
· “These things were given to the McCracken County Library and they didn’t have any use for them.”
· “Korean veterans think we have forgotten them.”
· In describing a person who held high respect for a particular veteran, she noted: “He didn’t feel like he deserved to be in the same room with him…felt like he should take his shoes off.”
· “This is a picture of my husband’s uncle. He’s buried at the bottom of the ocean.”
· “Someone told me to put stuff closer to the floor so people in wheelchairs could read.”

Sandy talked about the nephew of a person who served honorably in Vietnam, came home and in three weeks, was killed by a drunken driver. “He was having trouble, and coming to this museum healed him,” she remarked with a sense of certitude.

There are sections in the museum for each of the modern American wars, including items like a wall map to track down where the veteran was based in Viet Nam. “The Viet Nam War was the only one where they were spat on when they came back,” she said.

Also, a connection to children in schools who create words and art in tribute to veterans adds increased generational balance. Just about any piece of military service memorabilia imaginable sets on display predominately on a sanctuary floor where people once worshipped.

But this place is sacred, too, and Sandy Hart has been known to lower her body to ground level – just to show homage to her true heroes.

“She is a blessing God has given to those who know her,” said Earl Gidcumb, who has seen many spirits of valor pass his way over the years.

Those who know Sandy Hart around the Jackson Purchase area – and the number is legion – would tell you she is a fighter, a person who is confident in her cause and also in her manner, and one surely not afraid to take the lead and be out in front on what she believes. She was not entirely that way as a child, though her caring nature developed early. Barbara Roberson, an older sister, remembered this about Sandy growing up: “She was very shy and never wanted to make waves,” said Roberson. “I remember one time that I had her at my house and I asked her if she wanted a cookie. She said yes. I asked her which one she wanted and she said, ‘Whatever you want me to have.’”

Ray said she was not a whole lot more bold even after Sandy, a teenager, and he, 23, married after Ray served six years in the Marines. “She was like a ‘scared wet puppy,’” he said. “She was afraid to speak up or even write a check. She could talk to a friend nonstop, but if it was talking to a stranger, she would curl up scared to death!”

Learning to express herself as the “Mom” of the “Hart Kids’ Mom and Dad” twosome, however, Sandy found her voice. (There were even T-shirts printed with those descriptions.)

Just ask her grown daughter Bonnie Bruner, one of the six Hart children who now raises a household of adopted kids of her own – all of them with special needs. Bonnie and her siblings learned a gracious way of living, even though little money was available for holiday giving. “Mom taught us to enjoy life,” she said. “We were taught the gift of the heart and we would all make presents. For birthdays, we were treated like royalty, and we would be able to have twenty to thirty girls over and have ‘haunted’ sleepovers.”

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Perhaps the most dramatic “coming out” time for Sandy was during fund-raising activities for muscular dystrophy the Hart children initiated in the late ’70s.

“When we were younger, I saw some kids in the hospital who were not able to walk,” said Bonnie. “I asked my mom if we could do a carnival for muscular dystrophy to raise $50. She said, ‘If something is morally right and legally right, we could do it.’” Thousands of dollars were raised by the efforts of all the Hart family during the next several years. In the summer of 1980, they embarked on a 1,200-mile walk for muscular dystrophy and were given wide press coverage. The entire family, including the formerly shy and withdrawn Sandy, sometimes dressed up like clowns to promote the cause.

Bonnie recalled an instance when the Harts were driving to an event but were late. All eight members wore clown outfits. “Dad’s nightmare happened,” she said. “Our car broke down on the highway. Here goes eight clowns climbing out of a car with everyone driving by honking and waving and smiling without stopping because they thought it was planned and never realized we needed help. We all thought it was funny… Dad, not so much.”

Another of Sandy’s daughters, Dawn Knudsen, remembers the motivating words the kids received during the challenging 1,200-mile walk. “One of the reasons that we finished it is because we had a goal but she told us to ‘take just one mile at a time.’ She also told us to ‘remember what we are doing it for.’”

Dawn also said that her mother is of the same mind today with the museum project. “My mom has set a goal, but she is at the beginning of her walk with this museum. The best is yet to come.”

Not surprising, all of the Hart children, including Shawn, Nan, Candy, and Cheri have been solid contributors to their communities in their adult lives.

Though Sandy is generally the person most associated with the remarkable outreach to the cause of American war veterans, Ray has stood behind her all along the way with a spirit that has made a lasting impact on all their children. Bonnie summed it up this way: “We learned to care for others. Whenever someone was in need of anything, Mom and Dad would help however they could. I saw them help people get their kids back from social services, help couples fix their marriages and help kids find love.”

But don’t expect Sandy Hart, who Wickliffe Mayor Chan Case says “is truly a unique individual who gives 100 percent, but achieves 110 percent,” to talk about how much she gives of herself daily. No, this amazing servant leader – with deep intensity in her eyes– will always refer you to look toward her true heroes, many of whom gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and an author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. He is currently working on “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” due to be released in spring 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as a weekly KyForward columnist, and is a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

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